The Ancient Made New
Since the 1980s the National Gallery of Victoria has pursued a collecting policy focused on contemporary Indigenous Australian art. This year, to mark the museum’s 150th anniversary, a further 173 works have been gifted by the Felton Bequest
Judith Ryan, Friday, 1st July 2011
Warangkula was among the first of the Papunya founding artists to forge a poetic form of painting that performed on an aesthetic plane, free of literal correspondence with sacred objects or designs used in ritual. In painting kapi (water, rain), celebrated and symbolised in multiple markings and dots laden with white, Warangkula and other Western Desert artists summon the horizon into the picture plane, characteristically rendered as signs for clouds, lightning, rain, rainbows, hail or atmospheric disturbance. Thus the artist is painting the land where his spirit is embedded, as if inside it, condensing subterranean and celestial elements on a two- dimensional plane that is a portrayal of the self.
It is tempting to be pious about Rover Thomas’ Dreamtime Story of the Willy Willy (1989; Fig. 2), which condenses complex mythological and topographical information to soft-edged austerity and near abstraction. A hellocoidal red-dust storm, or willy willy, ushers in the dull white surface of the land and rises into the sky, spreading out audaciously with a serpentine whoosh from right to left. The finely textured ground of creamy white kaolin, uncluttered by sub-sidiary patterning, symbolises the country associated with the storm. The artist’s comp- ositions are for the most part bald, spare and uncompromising, yet never awkward, and are possessed with a totality of one who resides in the land and is of the land, like a physical sign or gesture, or a piece of calli-graphy. The force of the storm is invoked through the single dynamic sweep of the red-ochre circling lines, like an organism expanding exponentially across the canvas. Dreamtime Story of the Willy Willy contains a sensibility of design and surface texture, an inner life, a vital rhythm in the drawing that is algorithmic.
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