mmThe exhibit of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum is sure to dazzle light-deprived northern New Englanders with its blasts of sunny colors and pulsating patterns.
The show will also surprise — maybe even shock — many visitors. Described by critic Robert Hughes as “the last great art movement of the 20th century,” Aboriginal painting and sculpture from Down Under remain little known in North America 40 years after the start of their renaissance. By contrast, work by living indigenous artists commands high prices in Australia and is frequently featured in European galleries and museums.
Curators in the U.S. were slow to appreciate the quality and vitality of the art making that got under way in 1971 in Papunya, a desert settlement in northern Australia. There, a group of Aboriginal men supplied with materials by a local schoolteacher began painting images that arose from 50,000 years of collective cultural memory. They applied to boards and canvas a pictorial language inspired by the Dreaming, the Aboriginal creation myth.
In 1988, Asia Society in New York mounted a landmark exhibition titled “Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia.” It caused a sensation — but only briefly. Not until 2010 did the Metropolitan Museum, the nation’s foremost world-art repository, stage a show of Aboriginal work, and even that one included only 14 pieces.
The Hood, however, got clued in to Aussie indigenous art early on. It helped immensely that the museum’s former director, Brian Kennedy, had headed the National Gallery of Australia from 1997 to 2004. At his instigation, the Hood staged a 2006 show by Aboriginal female artists, titled “Dreaming Their Way,” that proved momentous.
American art collectors Will Owen and Harvey Wagner, who lent paintings to that exhibit six years ago, were so impressed by Dartmouth’s integration of the work into course curricula that they agreed to donate their entire collection to the Hood. The 100-plus pieces now on display represent about a fifth of the pair’s gift to the museum. The Hanover, N.H., institution has thus become North America’s foremost treasure chest of Australia’s reborn Aboriginal art.
At least a couple of hours are needed to take in “Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art.” The show is overwhelming in size, variety and, often, in sheer beauty. Most visitors will also need time to acclimate to an unfamiliar set of premises and references.
This is one case in which text panels elucidate the works on view rather than divert attention from them. The paintings viewers see may appear to be geometric abstractions, but as the commentary makes clear, they’re actually symbolic expressions — of the Dreaming, yes, and of natural features such as “soakages” and “rockholes.” Those terms — referring to pools of water in the desert and sunken land forms, respectively — are unfortunately not defined in the show.
The outback is clearly the source of the palettes used by most of the painters. Ningura Napurrula, for example, swirls browns and blacks into circles and furrows in “Wirrulnga,” the name of a rockhole in western Australia. Her colors evoke the desert while paying homage to the sand drawings composed by her ancestors.
In such an environment, water serves as a source of inspiration as well as life. Shorty Jangala Robertson’s “Ngapa Jukurrpa,” translated as “Water Dreaming,” could be read as a trio of elongated, big-eyed figures with small wheels for feet. The painting, in aqua blue and green, is actually a representation of water coursing through a dry riverbed, according to the accompanying text.
Many of the paintings are executed with a pointillist technique that calls to mind the French postimpressionist Georges Seurat. But the marks these Aboriginal artists make are more the size of droplets than of points, and they don’t create forms Western viewers would describe as representational art.
Some of the younger artists in the show do depart from the style that emerged at Papunya. Samantha Hobson, born in 1981, appears to have been influenced by Jackson Pollock-style action painting in her phosphorescent “Wave Break at Night.”
Political pieces appear at the Hood, as well. Their inclusion is practically obligatory, given the ongoing legacy of anti-Aboriginal racism in the antipodes. Tony Albert’s gauzy watercolor “black’n’blue” shows a dark, hunched figure bookended by blue men with assault rifles embedded in their bodies.
Owen and Wagner collect sculpture, too. Some of these pieces, such as a set of “law poles” striped in ochre and other objects fringed with feathers, may require that viewers consult the explanatory panels for better comprehension. But some sculptures couldn’t be more accessible. A grouping of wood-carved animals, for example, includes a dingo that looks a lot like one of the dog carvings of late Vermont folk artist Stephen Huneck.
Such a resemblance across time and space is congruent with “Crossing Cultures.”
“Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art,” Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H. Through March 10. hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu