NEW ORLEANS — Despite the million-dollar auction price for works by Aboriginal Australian artists in 2007, the controversy about whether or not Australian Aboriginal art should be included in the Western canon hasn’t been entirely resolved. From the initial furor in the 1990s about its merit beyond the status as folk art, some historians continue to question whether works filled with indigenous spiritual symbols and stories of a particular sect of people can be considered “art” at all. But the new exhibition Marking the Infinite, comprised of several commissioned works by nine Aboriginal women artists from the Denis and Debra Scholl collection at the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University, should put these conundrums to rest. Curated by Aboriginal art scholar Henry F. Skerritt, this breathtaking display of work made by women from different indigenous clans in Australia falls squarely within the realm of contemporary art.
While some historians argue that Aboriginal art does not meet the Western criteria of art as a platform for innovation and self-expression, these paintings, which are filled with traditional abstract Aboriginal iconography denoting nature, spirits, and a way of life that has been passed down for generations, are a wonder. Whether it is Gulumbu Yunupingu’s “Ganyu (Stars)” (2002) or Nonggirrnga Marawili’s “Lightning and the Rock” (2014), painted with earth pigment on bark, the works vibrate with a lyricism that is endemic to their mark-making process. For these women artists, who began their artistic practice by assisting their husbands with painting on paper and canvas in camps that were set up by the Australian government in the 1970s to teach the tribesmen the ways of the Western world, art and tribal identity eventually became a full-time practice. Distinguished by meticulousness and rigor, the blanket of white crosshatches and dots against a brown background in “Ganyu,” and the stream of white diamond formations in Marawili’s bark paintings, are intimations of infinity. The meditative repetitiveness of these symbols, which represent each of their respective communities, emanate organically.
Just as enthralling as Yayoi Kusama’s obsessive dots are Angelina Pwerle’s effervescent dots in her two “Bush Plum” paintings (2013 and 2015), which refer to the fruit-bearing trees with white flowers in her region. No matter that the deeper implications of these motifs might be irrevocably lost on the viewer; one is drawn in by Pwerle’s technique. Little white dots of different dimensions cover the canvas without a discerning sense of order or pattern. Made with synthetic polymer paint against red and black backgrounds, Pwerle’s intuitively placed marks sparkle like the night sky filled with stars that appear to be both large and small, close and far, luminous and dull. Clumps of receding dots create wave-like motions that evoke a summer breeze. And when seen against the black background, the dots swirl like ocean currents.
It is this very soothing quality and the technique of painting these indigenous abstract forms that enlighten the viewer. The timeless appeal of work like this can also be seen in Regina Pilawuk Wilson’s fishnet-inspired canvases. In 1973, Wilson and her husband founded the Peppimenarti art studio; that studio is now a haven for women artists, and the upkeep of tradition has become synonymous with their identity. Once these women were freed from the restrictions of government missions that corralled and curtailed many Aboriginal communities, Wilson, like other clan members, fought to reclaim their land and aspired to promulgate their culture. Her large latticework canvas “Syaw (Fishnet)” (2015), commissioned by the Scholls, allowed her to experiment with scale. Blocks of light and dark woven yellow patches not only create the illusion of built surfaces and three-dimensionality, but they also resemble a vast map of parcels of land that the Aboriginals treasure.
Imbued with depth and detail like Vija Clemins’s art, paintings by the artist Yukultji Napangati repeatedly trick the eye. Filled with thin chiseled lines reminiscent of infinite fields of wheat, they appear to sway and create the illusions of Op Art. Yet works by Carlene West and Lena Yarinkura are less inspiring. West’s wide, freewheeling off-white brushstrokes in “Tjitjiti” (2015), which represent a salt lake in the desert, and Yarinkura’s spider webs made from palm leaf, paperbark, and feathers, lack the rigor and technical prowess of many of their cohorts.
Marking the Infinite gives voice and equal footing to Aboriginal artists as artists the world over. The sophistication and dynamism of the artistry on display evokes visions of infinity, regardless of whether or not the pieces tell abstract ancient tales, that is no different than the work of many acclaimed contemporary artists. Perhaps the best litmus test of art as a thing of beauty is to apply the words of American stalwart of Minimalist art, Agnes Martin: “When I think of art, I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life.” By that metric, “art” is achieved here with flying colors.
Marking the Infinite continues at Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University (Woldenberg Art Center, New Orleans) through December 30.