Seattle Museum

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Lupulnga, by Makinti Napanangka

I was first introduced to Aboriginal painting in the early 90′s when my friend Colleen Burke returned from the Australian Outback with a cache of gorgeous pieces on bark and canvas. I sat for hours with her paintings and searched constantly for what few books were available in this country (it was, after all, back in the primitive B.I. era—Before Internet). And finding original works from these desert artists that could be seen in person was rare in North America. Scattered small shows happened here and there. I drove down to New York to see one, a group of Aboriginal paintings hanging at the United Nations which was really more of a cultural/anthropological event than an art exhibit. A gallery featuring Aboriginal work sprang up in San Francisco for a period of time and then disappeared. It was the inaccessibility of seeing this work in person that drove me to finally make an art pilgrimage of my own to Alice Springs. That trip was a life changer for me.

Much has changed over the last 20 years. First and foremost is access to the work. This year alone I have seen two major exhibits of Aboriginal works here in the U.S.: Ancestral Modern, Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi‘s collection at the Seattle Museum (and written about here), and more recently, Crossing Cultures, the Will Owen and Harvey Wagner collection at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth. Both collections contain extraordinary works and have both been promised to the respective museums. Great paintings from this region live here now.

Second, the work itself has evolved. Aboriginal painting began at a very specific point in time—in the early 1970s. A young art teacher from Sydney, Geoffrey Bardon, brought the first acrylics and canvases to Aboriginal communities. The time between those first brushstrokes and a major art phenom was as close to overnight as success can be.

Many of the works in both of these shows are by artists who are second (and even third) generation, following on the path laid by those first pioneering elders 40 years ago. The lineage in the work is evident, but these younger painters are not caught in a derivative loop of tradition and style. The work feels fresh, exploratory and yet still elementally Aboriginal. I connect deeply with the old as well as the new.

For those of you living in the Northeast, the Crossing Cultures exhibit at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum runs through March 10, 2013.


Hood Museum


Political Storm Brewing, by Clinton Nain


Yunala, by Yukultji Napangati


Pukaratjina, by Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri


Close up view


Untitled, by Freda Warlapinni


Blue Water Hole, by Rosella Namok


Close up of the signatory dot technique


White Painting, by Nyapanyapa Yunupingu (on bark)

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Previous Slow Muse posts on Aboriginal art:

Aboriginal Art, Sacred Land and Becoming Visible

Art and Meaning

Explorations in Landscape and Art

Ancestral Modern

The Brush is the Least of my Weapons

I Feel You

Icons of the Desert

Threading Through Abstraction, Micro and Macro

Spaciality and Language

Barbara Weir: Grass Seed Dreaming

Breast, Bodies, Canvas

From the Dreaming, It Became Real

Contexts: The Museum vs The Gallery

Painting, in the Larger Context

Ocularcentrism

Ramanujan

Metonymy

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Walu, 2008, Tommy Mitchell

On display at the Seattle Art Museum: an extraordinary (as in EXTRAORDINARY) exhibit of contempoary aboriginal art. Mostly paintings, the show has been assembled from the collection of a Seattle couple, Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi.

Some of my favorite aboriginal painters are well represented—
Emily Kam Kngwarray, Wimmitji Tjapangarti, Doreen Reid Nakamarra, Gloria Tamerr Petyarr and Kathleen Petyarr. It also introduced me to some new favorites including Maringka Baker, Eileen Yaritja Stevens and Regina Pilawuk Wilson.

My passion for this work is a long standing one thanks to my friend Colleen Burke who first introduced me to the Utopian painters 20 years ago. And after spending time in Australia (and the Western Desert in particular) my interest has only deepened. I have a few treasured pieces in my collection that I have been looking at for years and still find compelling.

Interestingly Kaplan and Levi became passionate about this work about the same time, in the early 1990s. After Levi was hit by an Australian Post courier, they used the money from the settlement to start this collection. I like their point of view. Many of the pieces in their collection are paintings I would love to be able to view every day.

If a trip to Seattle before September 2 is not on your agenda, do the next best thing and buy the catalog, Ancestral Modern. This is a beautifully conceived book with texts by Wally Caruana, Pamela McClusky, Lisa Graziose Corrin and Stephen Gilchrist.

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