By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Swenson
By David Villano
By Kyle Swenson
By John Thomason
By Michele Eve
The Vari exhibition is the museum's high-profile show of the moment, but if you go by all means check out "Dreamings: Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert from the Donald Kahn Collection," also on the first floor just beyond Vari's work. The show is less than half the size of the Vari one, but it packs an enormous punch.
In 1971 a group of Australian aborigines living on a government reservation in the Western Desert region, under the tutelage of a white art teacher named Geoffrey Bardon, developed a technique for painting in acrylic on canvas. It came to be called "dot painting" because of its use of countless tiny dots of pigment to build up imagery. (Think pointillism with bigger dots.)
The paintings document the aborigines' religious belief in Dreamtime, an elaborate cosmology in which their most ancient ancestors emerged and literally sang the features of the world into existence. The Dreamings are the songs of creation, and they're full of mysterious secret imagery decipherable by only the aborigines themselves. Occasional literal elements appear -- snakes, trees, birds -- but for the most part the paintings are complex, highly coded, and, at least to nonaboriginal viewers, abstract.
From a distance the lines of colorful dots bring to mind ornate tapestries or mosaics or even beaded fabrics, and some of the pieces have the vibrant energy of op art. One particularly dazzling work, Norah Napaljarri Nelson's Yiwarra Jukurrpa (Milky Way Jukurrpa) (1991), its ebony surface dotted with stars and a dramatic arc of white, could pass for abstract expressionism at its finest.
These pieces aren't aesthetic objects in the usual sense, according to a quote from aboriginal artist Galarrwuy Yunupingu, who says, "They are about cultural, social, and political survival." While we as outsiders will never be able to break through the hermeticism that cloaks these fascinating paintings, we can still revel in their mysterious beauty.