Australia — and in particular the vast expanses of desert Australia, far from the cosmopolitan coasts — seems about as far away from New Orleans, literally and figuratively, as you can possibly get.
So what is “Marking the Infinite,” an exhibition of art by contemporary Aboriginal Australian women, doing at the Newcomb Art Museum?
"The exhibition underscores the museum's mission of mounting shows that recognize the contributions of women in the fields of art and design," said museum director Monica Ramirez-Montegut. "It also speaks to the cultural landscape of New Orleans, a city ripe with art from cultural bearers who, like the women in this show, build community while preserving important traditions and histories through their art."
The show, which is making its debut in New Orleans before traveling to other venues across the country next year, includes work by nine contemporary artists described as “revered matriarchs” in communities spanning the immense length and breadth of Australia.
Visitors to the exhibition will initially be struck by the pure sensations of color and texture which characterize the larger works on display.
But a closer look at those pieces reveals absorbing layers of detail and meaning. Regina Pilawuk Wilson’s “Syaw (Fishnet)” and “Sun Mat” are intricate tours de force which evoke aspects of venerated American painter Agnes Martin (herself the subject of a current retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City) in their studied precision.
Angelina Pwerle’s “Bush Plum” paintings are quieter but no less dazzling. The artist describes them as representing the bush plum plants that cover the eastern Australian desert landscape, though they also resemble vast expanses of densely starry sky, illustrating how Aboriginal art captures the infinite in observations of the small and particular.
Likewise, Carlene West’s works at first appear to be semi-abstract arrangements of color, shape, and pattern, but reveal themselves to contain grand origin stories and expressions of identity.
Yukultji Napangati’s “Ancestral Women at Yunala” is a densely shimmering arrangement of lines and dots that appears to pulse and swell as one looks at it. And you have to approach Napangati’s “Ancestral Women at Marrapinti” very closely to convince yourself it's made of paint on canvas instead of raised woven fabric.
The actual three dimensional pieces in the show tend to be more literal. Lena Yarinkura’s “Spider” pieces, made from palm leaves, bark, feathers, and pigment, are exactly that — oversized spiders (arachnophobes beware!) on netlike skeins that may remind some viewers of Native American dream catchers. Their simple forms and playfulness manifest a homespun charm, as does the artist’s assertion that the spider is “like a computer — he can make everything.”
For all their exploration of centuries-old motifs, it’s important to keep in mind that these are recent works by living artists, many of which were commissioned expressly for “Making the Infinite.” (Collector Dennis Scholl explained that most works created by Aboriginal artists are intended for domestic settings, and are thus on a much smaller scale than the ones in the current show.)
So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that most of the works in the show come across as strikingly contemporary.
Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s “Light Painting” perhaps best bridges that gap between old and new. Made of drawings on acetate that were scanned and presented on a digital display, its layered and continually evolving character perfectly encapsulates how the artists in “Marking the Infinite” incorporate ancient traditions in producing art that is revealing, fresh and vital.
“Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia”
WHEN: Through Dec. 30
WHERE: Newcomb Art Museum, Woldenberg Art Center, Tulane University
INFO: (504) 865-5328; newcombartmuseum.tulane.edu