Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye
National Art Center, Tokyo
7-22-2 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo
May 28 – July 28, 2008
Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s exhibition of paintings at Tokyo’s latest art museum, the National Art Center, is the first retrospective of the this aboriginal artist outside of her native Australia. Emily (as she is called) moved from making batik to painting with acrylic polymer on canvas at the age of 78 and in the next eight years produced around three thousand paintings. Their impact, both as an emotionally communicative experience and in terms of a painting intelligence, is staggering. One watches as styles are moved through quickly, going from a connected dot method that is somewhat reminiscent of Yayoi Kusama to later drawn lines that at moments might almost be Sean Scully on a less ponderous day. But Emily never knew of these artists and did not leave her ancestral homeland – which was her subject – called Alhalkere or “Utopia” in the central desert region of Australia’s Northern Territory.
As one enters the exhibition, the long wall is mounted with the “Alhalkere Suite” of 22 paintings that are described on the wall card as works that can be seen as aerial maps, which might depict “wildflowers after rain… spinifex bushes…wattles in blossom…desert oaks”. This work is from a middle period, earlier comes works where the dots are placed in a more orderly, and impressionistic fashion, but here Kngwarreye is in full command, modulating the surface by the same method that Howard Hodgkin often does of utilizing strings of splotches made by the heads of round-tip brushes, letting the paint gradually remove itself onto the canvas. Sometimes there is bunched-up color – muddied aqueous biscuits of paint – but the mixes maintain their clarity. The works are not traditionally pictorial in that there is no consciousness of paintings’ history of illusionistic space, but one is nonetheless afforded a complete painting experience: the works inform the eye and the body, both with a general and a specific tactility – they are exhilarating. Like any good painter, she will dare to place a new contrasting color smack over a carefully modulated area. This is not “mark-making” as an end in itself, but painting, in that its primary concern is with the whole.
“Big Yam” (1996) is a tall (the painting is about twenty feet high) vertical four-panel work that entwines snaky brushstrokes in yellow ochre, plum and Venetian red, used either full strength or mixed with black or white on a black ground. As does all the works, it communicates a specific place. Emily will sometimes, here and elsewhere, begin wet and then paint until the brush is making dry strokes. Here she appears to use this method to exit a curving painted path by lifting it off, dissipating the line.
“Alwelye” (1991) painted on a semi-transparent earth-red ground, collects full and very wet royal blue, raspberry, cherry red and bright urine yellow dots among pathways of white lines. The painting’s calm, purposeful energy has a mysterious, cul-de-sac aspect.
As in traditional European landscape painting, some of Emily’s color is both symbolic and local. The green plants that the desert produced after the rains was a period of the year that Emily called “green time”. “Earth’s Creation” is a big painting, befitting its title, made up four continuous panels producing a total work of approximately 9 by 22 feet, using lush greens and yellows as well as her signature brownish reds, Emily evokes the land of utopia where she resides. Dark paint splotches, applied over lighter areas, bring a feeling of the surface of the floral desert erupting into being.
In “Alalgura V” Emily becomes the first painter I am aware of who uses bright electric pink without irony. Combined with yellows and reds, the color of wildflowers, the light source seems to come from without rather than within, as if the desert sun has bleached out the surface. Another notable intersection of tradition and abstraction is how the paintings collude with Emily’s history of body painting, which may have influenced her choice to often begin a painting with a dark red or brown ground, like skin color. (There is also photograph in the exhibition of Emily’s upper torso painted with stripes).
This apparently influenced the later, linear works – stacks or assemblages of painted stripes collected on canvas panels. The artist’s process seems to involve responding to the marks from stripe to stripe as the work progresses. They resemble an abstracted undulating dance, incorporating the dry patches of the brush into the overall composition.
In another room her fellow townspeople brought several large quasi-crystalline mineral deposits that clearly have some of the deserts’ red clay running through them. The townspeople’s statement about the rocks is that they are there “to show that the paintings have special stories”. What is most remarkable is how the work communicates the landscape through known tactile experience. In a sense, the information that the hand receives is transferred to the canvas with the help of the eye, but what is unique here is a tactile history of an artist’s feet knowing the particular landscape as well. The paintings communicate what Alhalkere feels like when you walk across it barefoot as much as what it looks like. This is a very rare and pleasing thing.