There is nothing in contemporary art today that conveys the stunning power linking the subconscious to visual imagery than Australian Aboriginal painting.  The current exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, from the peerless Kaplan and Levi collection of contemporary Aboriginal paintings, demonstrates, to me, how devoid of meaning are our own perceptions of the world, and how empty–truly nonexistent–is our kinship with the land, our fellow humans and the creatures with which we share the earth.  We have no collective memory of where we came from.


Of the world’s oldest continuous culture, the many Aboriginal peoples of Australia have given us through their painting the rarest opportunity to enter into a perception of reality that’s so rich and meaningful it’s beyond our comprehension.  We can know it but never feel it. Reality is a tricky word to use in relation to what these paintings depict.  To an Aboriginal, what they see as the reality of  time or landscape is a deep mixture of memory, creation stories, spirituality and physical presence, with no delineation between what we would regard as real or myth.  The word we use to describe this connection between the world of today and the world of creation is Dreamtime.


The first time I saw Aboriginal painting was in 1988 in Melbourne, Australia when my former wife and I visited the Victoria National Gallery and walked nearly speechless through its landmark exhibition Dreamings.  We had never seen anything remotely like these monumental paintings. It couldn’t have been any more revelatory than if we had stumbled into a convention of aliens.  We could not believe what we were seeing.


From that introduction we went on to collect eight paintings, now split between us, and to which I have added several more.  They are among the most precious possessions I own.

I fail to understand why contemporary Aboriginal painting is relegated to the sideshow of “ethnographic” art and not hung in the same galleries as Abstract Expressionists or, if not accorded that significance, at least among modern works of Western painters.  To even compare the intensity and richness of a painting by, say, Emily Kngwarreye to one by Damien Hirst is akin to comparing a late Beethoven sonata to a song by the Bee Gees (with apologies to the Bee Gees.)  The stupendous Aboriginal painting in San Francisco’s deYoung Museum is abandoned at the very rear of the arts of Asia-Pacific section of the museum.

I’m moved by these paintings in ways I never experience when looking at other art.  Haunting museums around the world since a child, I’m not a stranger to the broad range of artistic mastery.  I love Cycladic sculptures, Titian drawings, Manet portraits, Paul Caponigro photographs.  The Neolithic cave paintings shown in Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams dazzled me with their beauty and mystery. Who can stand in front of Picasso’s Guernica and not be silenced?   If I could afford to hang anything on my walls it would be Homer and Sargent watercolors.


Australian Aboriginal paintings are different.  Even after decoding their symbols and structure, their meaning lies just beyond comprehension, because each paintings is unique to its painter, or group of painters.  They tell stories. They celebrate aspects of the land that nourish and enrich the community’s lives.  They explain where their people come from and how they came to be.  They depict the origins of language and how things were named in the beginning.  I can only intellectually understand what an Aboriginal painter intuitively knows by instinct and heritage. And it has only been since the early 1970’s that this deep knowledge has been shared outside their own communities–often reluctantly.  This is secret knowledge– knowable, really, only within the clan.




The pleasure I get from looking at these paintings comes from a connection to something beyond myself.  I may not fully understand what it is, and for sure it is to something outside of my life and experience.  They push my idea of significance backwards and forwards.  I marvel at the colors, the intricate patterning of dots and lines, the multi-dimensional conceptualization.  I enjoy the stories told in the paintings.  I love that the traditions are carried by both men and women in the Aboriginal communities.  In some areas, such as the Utopia Station, the paintings are made exclusively by women, reinterpreting on canvas what they once painted on their bodies.


Like in any art market, the early paintings in the movement, from the 1970’s and 80’s, are the ones that command the highest prices at auction.  They represent the beginning and the artists are now the Old Masters.  The Seattle exhibition picks up in the 1990’s through the present, illuminating the development of the art among a younger generation.  A few of the last remaining elders are represented–Rover Thomas, Emily Kngwareye.  What a privilege to see these paintings in one place.


Next Post
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: