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What to See in New York Art Galleries This Week

The New York Times June 20, 2018

Martha Schwendener, Jason Farago, Will Heinrich and Jillian Steinhauer

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Extract: 'Beyond the Veil’

Through July 8. Olsen Gruin, 30 Orchard St., Manhattan; 646-613-7011, olsengruin.com

Who gets to narrate history? Who gets to represent whom? These questions have been roiling the American art world lately, but they are nothing new in Australia — especially in regard to its indigenous population, who faced official efforts to erase their culture well into the 20th century through forced assimilation. Visual art has provided a crucial tool to help redress these erasures, and at this New York outpost of a Sydney gallery, the paintings by five women from central Australia, and one collaborative group, testify to the vibrancy of Aboriginal Australian art and the necessity of speaking for yourself.

There’s a strong harmony of style (dots) and color (reds and purples) across this show, yet even those encountering indigenous Australian painting for the first time will feel that Emily Kame Kngwarreye, a renowned painter who died in 1996 and whose work was seen at the Venice Biennale of 2015, is easily the most sophisticated here. An untitled painting from 1991 ebbs and flows with different densities of red, orange and chartreuse dots, while her small “Wild Flower Dreaming” (1994) makes heavy use of a fan brush, its hundreds of rose and amaranth eruptions floating across the canvas like jellyfish.

They may have superficial resemblances to the painting of Yayoi Kusama or (heaven help us) Damien Hirst, yet the essential point here is that these are not abstractions: Their allover compositions of dots and squiggles represent lands, dreams, and stories, revealing that in indigenous Australia the difference between representation and abstraction is inconsequential. That’s especially evident in a recent suite of paintings by Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi, entitled “Grandmother’s Country,” in which the allover pattern is interrupted by horseshoe shapes or running rivers of dots — a bird’s-eye view of the landscape expressing a continued claim of territorial sovereignty. (“Country,” in Aboriginal Australian English, refers to the nexus of land, laws and ancestry to which a particular person has rights.)

It was only in the 1970s that indigenous Australians began to paint with Western materials. For them, contemporary art serves not only as a means of expression but also an economic stimulus: Most of the artists here come from Utopia, one of the poorest areas in one of the world’s richest countries, and are fully aware of how these paintings acquire different values, cultural as well as financial, when they circulate between indigenous communities into Western museums and markets. There is therefore nothing “timeless” about these artworks, and indeed of all the virtues of indigenous Australian painting, the most important is its proof that modernity and tradition are not at odds. JASON FARAGO

 

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