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On a single floor in the Art Gallery of Western Australia I visited two exhibitions which, together, offered an object-lesson in the dismantling of space on the picture plane. It was the extraordinary and unanticipated consequence of placing an eye-watering array of modernist pictures on loan from MoMA alongside the Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards, 2013.
Both shows dealt overwhelmingly with the depiction of space and place, from Cezanne and the Fauves and Futurists in one gallery to the remembered patterns of an ancestral landscape in the other.In fact the MoMA show fast-forwarded to pop and photorealism, and the Indigenous Art veered from transcribed land art to soft sculpture and images of cultural alienation. For followers of GRAD I will focus on just four works, two from each show.
The Amazons of the Russian Avant-Garde, so named by writer and critic Benedikt Livshits in 1933, were represented by two highly characteristic works from MoMA. Olga Rozanova's The Factory and the Bridge (1913) shows a disassembled but still recognisable city, chimneys and bridges separated by hard-to-read and clashing passages in blue and orange and yellow. The clangour of the modern city is there before our dazed eyes, but there is no secure vantage point from which to view it. We wheel and turn with the painting.
Subject from a Dyer's Shop, Liubov Popova, 1914
Development of a Bottle in Space, Umberto Boccioni, 1912
Subject from a Dyer's Shop by Liubov Popova (1914) is revealingly displayed alongside Umberto Boccioni's shape-shifting futurist sculpture Development of a Bottle in Space (1912). In both works the interior world is subjected to an equivalent act of dis-assembly, the familiar is 'made strange' (in the terminology of Russian Formalism of the time), and through strangeness becomes newly immediate, intimate, engaging. Popova's colours and visual references are of the material world, but the forms are not. Fabrics and frills and text fragments are as they might be in a tumble-dryer, and our eye is tossed about accordingly.
Moving from modernist, materialist Russia to the art of aboriginal Australia might seem a stretch, but the correspondences to me are revealing. Artists Minyawe Miller (Untitled, 2012) and Churchill (Yoonany) Cann (Doogoorreninyem, 2012) have used media ranging from polymer paint to natural pigments to translate onto canvas their personal and accumulated understanding of the landscape which over forty millennia offered their peoples home, sustenance, and a structure for their beliefs.
Minyaw Miller, Untitled, 2012
Churchill (Yoonany) Cann, Doogooreninyem, 2012
The results are apparent abstractions which nevertheless carry powerful meaning to those who can read them, and offer a stillness, a reduction from the turbulence of the European city to the quiet of the Australian desert, from noise to silence. As with the Russian artists, however, colour and form do the work of making strange, only to clarify with prolonged viewing. Miller has walked this country, and seems to have internalised the landmarks and waterholes, bringing them back to us in brilliant skeins and whorls of color.
Cann speaks of his earth-coloured, map-like patterns: 'I'm doing them hill when we bin travelling. I'm thinking about what them hills really look like. I just follow them hills when I bin walk.' The language is certainly not that of Charles Baudelaire’s flaneur, but I think we find here the attention to 'gait, glance and gesture' that Baudelaire was advocating in his essay 'The Painter of Modern Life' (1863). These indigenous paintings are works of today, modern for the artists who made them, unravelling and in so doing explaining and sharing the landscape as they knew it.
So did those more familiar Amazons who made such a welcome visit to Australia.