Clement Greenberg definitely wouldn’t approve of the new exhibition Crossing Cultures at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum in Hanover, New Hampshire. The works highlighted in the show, all created by indigenous Australian artists, present elaborate, striking abstractions that are compulsively addictive eye candy, but Abstract Expressionism this is certainly not.
The Western ideal of non-objective abstraction that Greenberg and others championed was one of aggressive aesthetic exploration, with artists using non-objective painting to emphasize the flatness of a canvas, step by step abnegating figurative content in favor of formalist play through combinations of texture, shape, and color. Artists like Jackson Pollock, he suggested, traded illusionistic representations of humans, landscapes, and objects for pure visual stimulation.
In his essay “Modernist Painting,” Greenberg wrote, “The illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can look, can travel through, only with the eye.” In other words, the brain, constantly trawling for visual signposts, has nothing to grab onto and perceive as information in non-objective abstraction; we are simply confronted with riots of color, line, and shape. The same is not true for the Aboriginal version of abstraction on display at the Hood museum.
Take for example Walangkura Napanangka’s “Lupul” (2005), a blaring canvas of bright red, orange, and blue lines that weave into long chains and coagulate into knotty circles like braids of hair. The palette and non-objective composition bring to mind Kandinsky, but for the artist, the abstraction is actually a literal map. The title refers to a specific rockhole site at which women performed dances and songs; the site is represented by the concentric circles in the painting. Likewise, the black hole at the center of Susie Bootja Bootja Napaltjarri’s “Kaningarra” (2000) isn’t just a visual weight that lends contrast to the radiating psychedelia around it; it depicts a water hole of the piece’s title located in the artist’s home territory. The abstraction suddenly becomes full of content and specificity.
Angelina Pwerle’s painting “Ahakeye Altyerre (Bush Plum Dreaming)” (2000) at first looks like a Yayoi Kusama haze of dots. The shifting web of dark spots is hypnotic in its abstraction, but just how abstract is it? The greens, blacks, and purples of the canvas derive from the ripening process of the native mulga fruit, curator Stephen Gilchrist’s wall label informs us, and Pwerle’s white dots represent women scattering the seeds of the fruit, a ritualistic celebration of fertility.
The abstractions of these native Australian painters have more in common with the tension between figurative and non-objective embraced by Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston later in his career, and, more recently, Amy Sillman. These artists find themselves on the knife’s edge of abstraction, sometimes dipping into figurative cues, at other points wholly embracing the formalist beauty of their paint.
Though Greenberg felt his doctrine was absolute — no recognizable objects allowed — it never really was. Guston famously abandoned the strictures of pure abstraction to dip back into the dirty world of not just figuration but straight-up cartoons, spinning secular worlds of sketchy KKK members, burning cigarettes, and staring eyeballs, much to the chagrin of his Ab-Ex colleagues. Artists always find inspiration in the world around them; it’s just not necessarily blatantly perceivable in the final work.
The Australian abstraction makes the link between cultural background and finished work clearer. For those versed in their iconographic vocabulary of animal signs, geographic landmarks, and ritual objects, the pleasant visual cacophony of the paintings coalesces into a readable language. This content doesn’t subtract from their formalist power, but it does set the native artists apart from the canon of the New York School and the particular baggage of Abstract Expressionism.
The young Australian native artist Rosella Namok’s “Blue Water Hole” (2003) might be the meeting point of aboriginal abstraction, with its ambient symbolism and narrative edge, and New York painting. The piece, a light blue wash centering around a dark blue circle, brings to mind the emerging aesthetics of New Casualism, which includes painters who “employ old tropes and methods with a certain insouciant abandon,” wrote Sharon Butler in the Brooklyn Rail. The New Casualists “approach their work intuitively, are unfazed by ill-defined parameters or truncated lines of thought … They are more intrigued by the questions and contradictions in art than by any definitive answers it might provide.”
The contemporary current of painting is much more comfortable with the ambiguity embraced by the artists of Crossing Cultures, who clearly have no compunction about the contradictions and aesthetic biases of the past.
Crossing Cultures is open at the Hood Museum in Hanover, New Hampshire through March 10, 2013.