By Melik Kaylan from the Wall Street Journal:

Imagine that you could travel back in time to meet a Stone Age hunter-gatherer, that you could hand him a paintbrush and ask him to paint something on a board or canvas”not warpaint on his body or daubings on a cave, but a proper picture, one that gave us a glimpse of his inner landscape and his aesthetic universe. This is precisely what happened at Papunya in 1972 near the remote outpost of Alice Springs in the heart of the Australian outback. The products of that early encounter gave rise to the internationally celebrated phenomenon of Aboriginal art, an école of sorts, that we all recognize today. Many of those seminal paintings are now in “Icons of the Desert” at the Grey Art Gallery of New York University. The show, dedicated to those early years, is composed of works from the private collection of John Wilkerson, former president of the American Folk Art Museum, and his wife.

How to look at Aboriginal painting? If we knew nothing else, the sheer joyous vitality of the images themselves”with their dot-pattern chiaroscuros, elemental colors and buzzing lines”would amply satisfy the eye. But as the exhibition shows us, there’s a great deal more to know, a host of backstories that deepen and illuminate our sense of the art”and often leave us baffled by its mysteries. The paintings themselves are full of embedded narratives connected to the Dreaming, the Aboriginal genesis mythology”itself a series of disparate narratives, as most genesis mythologies are.

Then there’s the genesis backstory of how the art form was born, a pivotal moment of Australian social history when blacks and whites first tentatively bonded through art. The show features videos chronicling the story of the groundbreaking Papunya painters and their “whitefella” mentor, the now-famous Geoffrey Bardon (1940-2003), who acted as midwife to their talent in the early 1970s. Bardon’s own life reads like a moral fable: A sensitive schoolteacher and art student, a pioneer spirit, he befriended the Aboriginals, supplied them with materials, encouragement and funding despite resistance from his own kind, and finally suffered a nervous breakdown for his exertions.