Compelling Viewing

Exhibition review In focus: Rover Thomas Stories: Works from the Holmes a Court Collection Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery The University of Western Australia Part of the 1997 Festival of Perth

These two exhibitions opened at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery at The University of Western Australia on 14 February as part of the 1997 Festival of Perth. Entering the cruciform gallery space we were immediately struck by the prominence given to the Holmes à Court name. All the work in the exhibition is from that collection and a profusion of signs declared the ownership. Stepping into the seemingly neutral space we were aware that as Europeans working within an academic discipline it can be difficult for us to discuss the art of Australian Aboriginal peoples without privileging our Western view of the world and so ignore the possibilities for other subject positions.

Rover Thomas' works are hung in the cross-section of the gallery, brilliantly lit by natural light. The paintings are remarkable. Kimberley Crossroads 1990, natural pigments, bush gum on cotton duck, is a compelling work of emblematic quality. The large canvas is a ground of yellowing ochres, chromatic grey earth tones dividing the surface into four regions. Glowing with an almost metallic sheen, the surface appears to have been worked while saturated, the paints soaking and staining deep into the canvas. This generates a luminosity through the surface of the work. A large stain of tree gum spreads from corner to corner, dividing the painting diagonally. This soft-edged cross is fringed with repeated white dots systematically applied, counting out a timely order. The centre of the cross disrupts the geometry by a slight kink or notch, as if the two zones physically overlay one another.

To reduce a discussion of these paintings to Western aesthetics, while acknowledging the formal qualities of the artist's endeavour, is to deny the work its cultural and historical significance. That these issues are of consequence is made obvious by the works in the 'In Focus Exhibition'. Bedford Downs (1984), natural pigments, bush gum on plywood, and Bedford Downs Massacre (1985), natural pigments, bush gum on canvas tell of past atrocities enacted by Europeans on Aboriginal peoples. The painting, Bedford Downs Massacre (1985), carries an account that appears in other works, that of pastoralists poisoning flour, then hunting Aboriginal people, killing them and incinerating their bodies. The painting maps a murder scene.

The colonial process has been, and still is, harsh for Aboriginal peoples; the framing by an imperial culture is restricting. Rover Thomas' paintings bear witness to this. Bedford Downs (1984), warped and out of square, is tightly restrained by a frame and only conforms to Western curatorial custom in description in the catalogue. The surface is divided into large darkened regions and an almost oblique topography highlights large shapes. The plywood is worked in a mixture of gums and earth. In the light the deep charred tone of the matt surface is almost completely light-absorbent, while reflective specks applied on to the painting record body gestures. The slippage of white dots of dry pigment at times seems to absorb the sepia stain of gum applied wet on wet and dry on dry in other parts. The work is compelling in its unevenness.

The second exhibition, Stories: Works from The Holmes à Court Collection features a selection of works by Aboriginal artists from Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The title, Stories, connotes a narrative for the Western viewer, but this expectation is disrupted as the work appears mostly non-representational. Drawing from Aboriginal and European tradition, these works are impressive in terms of scale and visual complexity. Many of the paintings evoke the inner regions of northern Australian desert lands. We can appreciate the works as acute, the paintings describing important links between communities and lands.

The group of six works by Ginger Riley Munduwalawala is a series of small paintings, synthetic polymer on unprepared rough plywood. The images intrigue as stippled brushwork pecks out a landscape of inner terrestrial intensity. These worlds are full of foliage, rocks, waterholes and clouds that seem fused and undifferentiated in a metaphysical present. In Artist's Country 111 and 1V the view appears to grow in from the edges of the frame, an infolding uninterrupted by perspectival logic.

The display of Wululu's Hollow Log Poles 1989, natural pigments on eucalyptus wood, disturbed us. A cluster of hollow log 'coffins' in varying vertical lengths, they stand uneasily in the in-between-space of the gallery. The poles are painted in earth-tones in bands of yellow and black with white hatching, a single circular eye at the top of each. These works appear completely decontextualised with the ordered University gardens as a backdrop, distanced by layered glass. White walls compress the space, soft corporate-grey carpet provides an unearthly ground. To position them stainless steel cable is attached to the top of each log. The dangling wire reduces the installation to unconvincing window dressing. As Theodor Adorno may have been moved to comment, the poles slither easily into the abyss of their opposite as the elements of the display shift the work into the fetishistic space of Western anthropology.

The art works in this exhibition transcend the banal institutional context and continually astonish the eye. Vivid works such as Peter Skipper's, Purnarra V 1987, synthetic polymer on linen, feature a traditional Purnarra design form. Vibrant red, orange, white and ochre paint describes geometric forms which sweep the eye across the surface maze of the work through a labyrinth of detailed lines. All the works in this exhibition share a vital resilience that insists on our recognition of a dynamic and inspirational culture.