Exhibition review Butcher Cherel Janangoo, Julie Dowling, Julie Gough 10 February - 7 March 1999 Artplace Western Australia
The 1999 Festival of Perth offers a plethora of fine art and craft exhibitions and Artplace contributes with an interesting display of works by three contemporary Aboriginal artists, each stylistically different.
Butcher Cherel Janangoo tells us stories about food, animals and the formation of the land in a traditional manner. Julie Dowling exposes the inner dignity of her subjects in Renaissance-like portraits. And Julie Gough presents an installation that questions the presentation and interpretation of history.
Butcher is a key elder of the Gooniyandi language group. This exhibition, Imanara: big country chronicles a journey through his country in the Kimberley, telling the Dreamtime origins of various sites along the way. His images are precisely drawn and painted while the words that accompany each work are simply stated. Each form of communication is beautiful in its own way.
Butcher's thirteen works on paper consist of a central figurative motif stylistically rendered in the warm colours of the land and framed by a repetition of bold black lines. As these lines radiate to the edge of the paper they become more curved at the 'corners' suggesting a circular, pulsating momentum. We wonder if they indicate the speaker's voice resonating outward, retelling the story, keeping it alive or if they are intended to focus our mind inward, to quietly contemplate the subject and connect with it on a different plane. His one painting on canvas is a compilation of the suite. As the artist says; "This is the country I paint, Imanara. It is a big country". The overall effect is one of pride of place.
Paintings by Dowling, an urban artist, successfully combine western realism with indigenous patterns and Catholic emblems with Aboriginal spirituality. Dowling chronicles the history of her extended family via small portraits presented like Byzantine icons. Three series, Madonna, Christ and Icon to a stolen child, depict individual black faces peering out from brightly coloured and bejewelled surfaces. The contrast between the superficial decoration and depth of emotion in the subject make a cogent statement.
In the European tradition of portraiture, Dowling depicts a realistic likeness of her subject amid recognisable objects that are keys to understanding the broader narrative of the times. For example in Golden Boy, a barefoot youth full of promise crouches by a football on a ground of gold which is embossed with a variety objects, including a tin of glue.
Everlasting Molly is a stunning image that pays homage to an elderly matriarch. Episodes from her life, starting with her birth in a field of everlastings 80 years ago, are recorded in a frieze that wraps around her like a comfortable robe, or perhaps a halo. With this portrait, Dowling celebrates the triumphs of life and demonstrates her expertise in the genre.
Both Butcher and Dowling recount stories of spiritual significance and personal experiences, of real people and places in this land. They do so with respect and artistic skill. By comparison, the installation Operation Aloha! Magnum as Cook in the time/space continuum by the academic Gough appears emotionally empty. It suggests the only skills owned by this presenter are postmodernist theories and bargain hunting.
History is always recorded with prejudice, so too is 'revised' history. Gough asks us to recognise this fact, a valid concept. However in her attempt to deconstruct the distortions of history, she devalues artefacts and ridicules customs from another society. By doing so she is guilty of the same crime she set out to justifiably condemn - cultural vandalism.
One component of her installation is a portrait of Tom Selleck in character as Magnum PI and signed by the original artist, G. Dickens. In her statement, Gough reveals how she bought the painting at a bargain market for $5. Claiming ownership she now controls "the 'bias' of the piece", professes to know "the conceptual vision of the original untraced artist", devalues the object from art to kitsch, then uses it to construct her own cultural comment. Isn't that what cultural imperialists have always done?
The artist must have been aware her installation would be misinterpreted as in her statement she confesses, "In working within this 'vision' my sarcastic humour is treading a fine line from appearing to support what I intend to question." In my opinion she has crossed that line.