Vibrantly colored and inviting, the paintings by Utopian Aboriginal artists currently on show in Downtown's Space Gallery as New Works From Utopia rest easily within the confines of Western contemporary art theory. They work well on these industrial gallery walls.
Utopia is a group show of nearly 50 paintings by 15 artists from the Utopia area of north-central Australia. The works are conventionally hung in sequence, at eye level, around the gallery. There is a prevalence of repetitive mark-making: dots, lines and dashes in warm, bright, earthy colors that are enhanced by black-under painting. A rich, bright glow emanates from the work.
Utopia covers 700 square miles of desert about 150 miles northeast of Alice Springs. Home to approximately 200 people, the region was named by the first white settlers, in 1927, seemingly in expectation of an idyllic life. The settlers forced the Aboriginal inhabitants to vacate their homelands and ceremonial sites. But in 1979, in a successful claim, the Aboriginals obtained permanent title to the lease of their homelands.
Exiled Utopian artists played an important role in the campaign for land ownership by establishing cultural connections to the territory through their artwork, and also through proving the economic feasibility of the works. Initially, they employed textile processes such as batik; in 1988, the artists were introduced to acrylics and canvas. The works at Space Gallery descend from these early paintings.
Many of the works in this show utilize a coded language called Dreaming. Dreaming tells how the ancestral spirits of the people of Utopia created, and then became, the land, and how the land is thus alive and sacred. The legends are conveyed through shapes and what seem to be diagrams alluding to rituals. In Kenny Bird Mbitjama's "Ceremony Dreaming," a series of concentric circles represent waterholes, and upright concentric semicircles portray the elders in a type of topographic map of a Dreaming ritual. In Nora Nangala Watson's "Warlpiri Tribe," a snaking line represents a sand hill, while clouds are depicted by ovals. This system of symbols refers us to the languages of art; the paintings can be seen as art about art.
"Bush Medicine" is a collective title for a series of paintings by Gloria Petyarre, composed of dynamic formations of repetitive brushstrokes, every one about an inch-and-a-half long. Each mark appears to be made by a single movement with the brush: down, up or across, collectively they move over the canvas. Many of Petyarre's paintings use only one color -- for example, chrome yellow -- plus white, on a black background. Variations of tone are created by the changing density of paint on the black underpainting, and record the life of each mark.
Susie Hunter's "Women's Ceremony" playfully utilizes expanding patterns, paralleling childhood doodling, in which a simple shape grows by being repeatedly drawn around and around itself, eventually morphing into more complex forms and patterns. It's reminiscent of psychedelic art. This similarity is supported by Hunter's use of bright colors: pinks, reds, greens and blues.
Two paintings by Annie Hunter, also titled "Women's Ceremony," employ thousands of tiny dots that form swirling, seemingly unstructured movements across the canvas. The marks appear to pool in certain areas, where the colors become more uniform. The paintings invite the viewer to move both toward them and away from them, in the anticipation of perceived changing formations, the way Op Art is viewed.
Fascinating though these paintings are, I do have a cynical reservation: I hope that the work of these artists does not become overly commercialized, as often happens with indigenous art. I hope these artists continue to enjoy the space and support to develop independently.
Utopia continues through Dec. 31. Space, 812 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-325-7723 or www.spacepittsburgh.org