Two complementary exhibitions exploring abstraction and symbolism in 20th and 21st century artistic practices from very different areas of the world—the Australian Western Desert and the American West—open at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art (NEHMA) at Utah State University. Abstraction and the Dreaming: Aboriginal Paintings from Australia’s Western Desert (1971‒Present), featuring historic and contemporary works from private collections, is on view September 12‒December 12, 2015, and Transcendence: Abstraction and Symbolism in the American West, drawn from NEHMA’s distinguished collection, from September 1, 2015‒May 7, 2016.
Katie Lee Koven, NEHMA Director, said, “Abstraction and the Dreaming and Transcendence propose a reexamination of how we understand and experience art of the last century, shifting away from cultural or geographical siloes toward rich cross-cultural dialogues and multi-cultural histories. These dialogues across cultures exist less as the exception and more as the rule, especially over the last century. Both exhibitions help us understand artists and their work more individualistically, with layers of identity that are complex and distinctive yet, in some ways, connected.”
Abstraction and the Dreaming includes more than fifty artworks spanning the emergence of painting at Papunya, a remote Australian Indigenous settlement, to the present day. With fewer than 600 in existence, the “Papunya boards” (1970s) have a singular status within the history of Australian Aboriginal art. The works include both the early paintings on boards and later paintings on canvas and are on loan from collectors John and Barbara Wilkerson, New York (John is an alumnus of Utah State University); Dennis Scholl, Miami; Julie Harvey, Idaho; and Stephen Luczo, San Francisco.
The first Papunya painters were men whose extensive cultural knowledge of ancestral stories, referred to as “Dreamings,” provided the subject matter. Encouraged by a Sydney schoolteacher who provided materials—acrylic paint and masonite boards and, later, canvas—to create permanent works, the artists employed symbols used in other contexts. These included drawing in the sand to accompany storytelling or body painting and constructing designs on the ground for ceremonial rituals. The early “Papunya boards” are descendants of mark-making that dates to well over 100 centuries ago and are the beginning of the Western Desert art movement.
Because some of these designs were associated with sacred male-only ceremonies, women were not allowed to participate in art-making. Over time, Papunya artists moved away from the use of symbols toward greater abstraction. The scale of artworks on canvas grew and women began painting, using a markedly more gestural and vibrant style than their male counterparts. Today, these works are interpreted and experienced as contemporary abstract paintings, stimulating a rich dialogue about indigenous art in the contemporary art world.
Among the artists included are Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, Tim Payungka Tjapangarti, Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa, Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Eileen Napaltjarri, Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula, Kenny Williams Tjampitjinpa, Naata Nungurrayi, Walankura Napangka, Makinta Napanangka, and Ningura Napurrula.
Showcasing NEHMA’s important collection of modernist art made in the American West after World War I, Transcendence: Abstraction and Symbolism in the American West includes over 45 works spanning painting, photography, sculpture, works on paper, pottery, and mixed media.
The exhibition surveys American Indian and non-native artists—including Harold Cohen, Edward Corbett, Jean-Pierre Hébert, Robert Irwin, Raymond Jonson, Helmi Dagmar Juvonen, Julian and Maria Martinez, Lee Mullican, Nampeyo, Judy Natal, Sibyelle Szaggars Redford, Deborah Remington, Henrietta Shore, and Takako Yamaguchi—who employed abstraction and symbolism to convey their experiences and interpretations of the American West. Complementing Abstraction and the Dreaming, the exhibition explores how these artists utilized these genres in various ways to convey responses to place, spirituality, and cultural identity.
The Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art
The Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art (NEHMA) is dedicated to collecting and exhibiting modern and contemporary visual art to promote dialogue about ideas fundamental to contemporary society. NEHMA provides meaningful engagement with art from the 20th and 21st centuries to support the educational mission of Utah State University, in Logan, Utah. NEHMA offers complementary public programs such as lectures, panels, tours, concerts, and symposia to serve the University and regional community. Admission is free and open to the public. Hours are Tuesday‒Saturday from 10am to 5pm and by appointment.
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