SAM's 'Ancestral Modern': contemporary visions with age-old resonance
Seattle Art Museum's "Ancestral Modern" immerses you in a modern Aboriginal art movement that draws on a 50,000-year-old cultural tradition. The exhibit runs through Sept. 2, 2012.
Seattle Times arts writer
'Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art'10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday-Friday, through Sept. 2, Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle; $11-$17 (206-654-3100 or www.seattleartmuseum.org).
The Australian Aboriginal art on display in "Ancestral Modern" (running through Sept. 2 at the Seattle Art Museum) may be new to some art-lovers. But it stems, as Australian independent curator Wally Caruana pointed out earlier this week, from a very old world.
"Aboriginal culture," he explained at a press preview for the exhibit, "is regarded as the longest continuing tradition of art known to humanity." The earliest samples of it, he added, are found in rock art at least 50,000 years old.
The exhibit — curated by Pam McClusky, SAM's curator of art of Africa and Oceania — is drawn entirely from a collection Margaret Levi began amassing on her first trip to Australia in 1984. Her husband, Robert Kaplan, later joined her efforts, resulting in a museum-worthy collection the Seattle couple intends to leave to SAM. This exhibit of roughly 120 pieces is its first big outing.
And what an outing it is. The show is a veritable walkabout through Aboriginal landscapes and mythologies. It plunges viewers into works — most of them synthetic polymer paintings on canvas — that would beguile the eye in any context.
Loosely organized by region, "Ancestral Modern" opens with works by three sisters. Kathleen Petyarr and Violet Petyarr's renderings of "Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming" are pointillistic vortexes inspired by the desert landscape of the Northern Territory and the skin patterns of a reptile that inhabits it. Gloria Tamerr Petyarr's "Leaves" captures foliage in motion so turbulent, it might be an illustration of chaos theory. The work of all three sisters has Op Art qualities, but its rootedness in landscape makes it more than mere visual trickery.
With its heightened colors and playfully stylized geography, Mitjili Napanangka Gibson's "Wilkinkarra" taps straight into the artist's girlhood camping expeditions on small islands in Lake MacKay. It's a "map" made bright and fanciful by memory. Dorothy Robinson Napangardi's "Sandhills" reflects its landscape inspiration more directly, with rolling horizontal lines creating a deep, rippling perspective of ridges.
Some of the paintings have overt storytelling agendas. Andrea Nungurrayi Martin's "Janganpa and Jajirdi" ("Possum and Native Cat") depicts an interspecies battle in which energetic clusters of critters (signified by "U" shapes) wield spears and boomerangs against each other. Tommy Mitchell's eye-grabbing "Walu" positively buffets you with its energy, once you realize it recounts the tale of a destructive, dishonest boy who was turned into the wind for his misdeeds. The colorful multiple, spiraling "weather fronts" colliding in this masterpiece are something to see.
While the exhibit focuses on work created between 1960 and 2009, its historical roots run deep. Emily Kam Kngwarray's striped paintings, painted in the last eight years of her life, stem from her five decades of body-painting with her fingers — an age-old medium.
A number of paintings on specially treated eucalyptus bark hark back to a time when huts' bark walls were elaborately decorated with natural pigments. The warped surface of the bark fuses with slanting pigment patterns, in works that are half painting, half bas-relief. John Mawurndjul, who gets a whole gallery to himself, draws especially sophisticated results from this technique. Dennis Nona, with a bronze sculpture, an etching and two hand-colored linocuts, makes an even stronger impression, suggesting he warrants his own exhibit.
Several collaborative pieces, though, challenge the primacy of individual imagination and achievement. "Wati Kutjarra (Two Men Story)," with its parallel coiling serpents, makes such a strong impression that you figure it had to come from one hand. Yet it's the work of 17 members of the Spinifex Men's Collaborative.
Not all the pieces in the show have an equal appeal. It's the works of mind-bending compositional complexity and fanatical dot-by-dot detail that jump out at you. But taken as a whole, "Ancestral Modern" couldn't immerse you more fully in a culture that lives through its art with a force, subtlety and thoroughness that's hard to miss.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org