Why Australian painting matters

_Eastern_Road__Tur_1158587hFiona Gruber at the Times Literary Supplement:

Artists’ interpretation of Australia’s extraordinary landscape, its arduous and covertly violent history, and the modes of alienation and accommodation that are hallmarks of the white experience, all make for fascinating viewing; but there is a persistent image problem, especially among North Americans. Since its first rough colonization, Australia has suffered from being seen as a place rather than a culture. As McCaughey has written elsewhere: “the frustration for Australian artists and writers is that there is little or no curiosity about their identities, their histories, their reputations but only about how their work is a revelation of place”.

It isn’t just a bias of the North Americans. In 1788, the ships disgorging England’s unwanted were moored alongside shores with the longest continuous culture in the world, a fact refuted by the notion of terra nullius. The 40,000-year-old living art tradition at the heart of the culture was something of interest only to a few ethnographers and collectors, and the indigenous relationship between place and art hadn’t penetrated white consciousness. All of that changed in the 1970s, and McCaughey opens his book with an exploration of Aboriginal painting at a point when indigenous artistic expression, formerly found only in sacred ceremonies and sites, was translated into paintings in acrylic on canvas. Among collectors and the public, there was amazement at the explosion of colour and intricate dot or cross-hatch patterning, at the way works could seem abstract when looked at through a Western lens, but which also told complex stories about country, spirits and ritual. Enclosed within a familiar rectangle and hung on a wall, these works could now assume a legitimacy and status in the art world they had never before possessed. They allowed white people to see indigenous art for the first time.

more here.