A few weeks ago when Sophia Cunningham invited us to the Without Reason show at the UNSW College of Fine Arts, she told us that Felicity Fenner has a “relationship” with the college. She didn’t elaborate on what that relationship is and we speculated that it might be something like the ‘relationship’ between the Sopranos and the waste disposal business. It seems as if there’s a show on anywhere, Fenner has got something to do with it and like minor underlings in the organization, we respect Fenner’s thing… She’s a goodfella, if you see what we mean…
Therefore it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the Ivan Dougherty Gallery’s Biennale Parallel Event is a show called Talking About Abstraction in which Fenner has curated a visually stunning exhibition of non-Indigenous abstract paintings and Indigenous art. With paintings by Debra Dawes, Angela Brennan, ADS Donaldson, Melinda Harper, Paddy Bedford Jawalyi, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Ildiko Kovacs, Mitjili Naparrula, Dr. George Tjapaltjarri and others, the show attempts to describe how a generation of white abstract painters have been influenced by their non-white Indigenous contemporaries.
As a visual experience, the show is persuasive. It would seem, superficially at least, that there are many visual and optical similarities between abstract painting and Indigenous art and you could easily construct a taxonomy of features that the works share – colour fields, isolated motifs (circles, gestural components), lines, grids, layering, repetitions of shapes and more general compositional similarities. Fenner has marshaled a series of testimonials from the white artists who testify, yes, they were influenced by Indigenous art and isn’t it all lovely.
Without wanting to impune the motives of the artists we were left wondering what other connections one might find between the artists beyond a visual similarity? Certainly, the artists in question have seen Indigenous art, but to what real extent does their art connect with the motives of the Indigenous artists? We feel distinctly uncomfortable at the thought that the white artists are plundering Indigenous art for inspiration when the Indigenous artists themselves have yet to really profit from Aboriginal arts popularity in both the primary and secondary markets – is that really an equitable relationship?
Then there are artists like ADS Donaldson in the show and we have to ask how Indigenous art fits into his all encompassing art practice? We jokingly had a go at Donaldson recently for painting pictures all the same and we were then roughed up by Billy Bloggs, an anonymous poster on the comments pop up, who told us, hey, the only continuity in Donaldson’s art is that they are all by him and do not share visual similarities. Well, we thought hard edge abstract paintings was a similarity and in this show is another blue and white checked on white painting by him – is that not a continuity? Donaldson’s conceptual practice seems as far from Indigenous art one can get but we must be wrong. His real forte as far as we can see is making grandiose statements, such as this in the Talking About Abstraction catalogue:
ADS Donaldson, when asked “what is the future of contemporary art in Australia?” responded definitively that “The future won’t begin to happen in Australia until a whole level is wiped away in the management class, those occupying the powerful institutional positions, the gatekeepers – that whole Anglo imperative needs to dissolve away. All the models we need are in the desert and we must turn towards them.”
You can sympathise with Donaldson’s view – a whole class of people stopping the future from unfolding as it should; a non-white, non-Anglocentric playing field where all players are equal and those dastardly gatekeepers are banished. Thank god a white, abstract painter is willing to tell it like it is – we must turn to the Western Desert and empathise with their style. We can be sure Indigenous artists will thank us for making the effort.
Ironically, there had been a minor accident at the gallery. The words TALKING ABOUT ABSTRACTION were cut out in plastic, 3D style, and stuck up on the wall – except someone had forgotten about the word ‘ABOUT’ which had been printed out from a computer on a piece of paper and then stuck up on the wall with sticky tape and which more or less rendered the title TALKING ABSTRACTION, a subtle hint that the actual talk was as abstract as the paintings. As we stood at the counter and read the catalogue two people excitedly discussed the previous nights soccer match between England and France where England were defeated in the last two minutes 2-1. Then something popped into our minds that we couldn’t shake all day long – Funky Town and its nagging refrain “talk about, talk about, talk about – dodoo dedooo – Funky town!”
Thank god, there are only two more Biennale Parallel Events to go…