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by Ben Street
"Rarrk London," Sept. 21-Oct. 7, 2007, at Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf, Bargehouse Street, South Bank SE1 London

On the surface, Aboriginal Australian art is easily understood as a special kind of ethnic abstraction that offers both formalist invention and a spiritual component, qualities that are, unsurprisingly, also found in abstract art in the West. "Rarrk London" -- the word "rarrk" refers to crosshatching -- recently brought more than 100 works by about 15 artists from Western Arnhem Land in Australia to the Bargehouse on London’s South Bank, only a short walk away from Tate Modern. The exhibition was organized by Josh Lilley Fine Art, a gallery founded a year ago, in cooperation with Maningrida Arts and Culture.

Lilley has used the Bargehouse’s sprawling industrial spaces to good advantage. With its weathered steel beams and blisters of paint, the building is suited to avant-garde art production, and discreetly if ironically articulates Lilley’s stated aim to "bring contemporary Aboriginal Australian art in line with other contemporary art shows in London." Spread over four floors of this vast riverside warehouse, spotlighted or aglow with natural daylight, the bark paintings and spindly figurative sculptures reacted to the space and each other in a pointedly "fine art" way.

Interestingly enough, despite the respect that most of us give to indigenous art forms, their presentation can still carry a certain sense of disenfranchisement. In "Rarrk London," this "outsider effect" is verbalized in the show’s documentary (shown as part of the exhibition), in which dealers and journalists alike voice their bewilderment at the lack of critical support for the work, and promise that a renaissance is just around the corner. Here, hope seems to lie in one man, John Mawurndjul, a kind of Luke Skywalker of Aboriginal art, whose steady rise to prominence -- and steadily rising prices -- this show presumably will quicken. (Mawurndjul’s work sells for as much as £24,000; other works in the show begin at about £1,500.)

Mawurndjul occupies an odd position in contemporary art. On the one hand, he’s been the subject of a major retrospective at Basel’s Museum Tinguely and made a huge installation at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. On the other, he makes art according to an age-old process of stripping bark from trees, fire-treating it, and painting its smooth interior with highly elaborate abstract patterns. One day he’s posing for the cover of Time magazine, and the next he’s back in his Arnhem Land outstation home amid the swirling dust and sluggish rivers. Mawurndjul is an apt reflection of the liminal status of Aboriginal art, and his work -- and that of his contemporaries also shown here, including Samuel Namunjdja, Timothy Wulanjbirr and Kay Lindjuwanga -- plays out this position with often fascinating results.

An initial look at works such as Mawurndjul’s Mirelk Site (2007), an apparently abstract painting on an oblong slice of stringybark, reveals certain formal echoes of the tropes of Western abstraction. Bands of minute crosshatched lines in natural ochre pigment (the Rarrk technique originates in body painting) fill the inner surface of the bark, with waves of thinner white and black lines running across it in a distorted grid, like an Agnes Martin reflected in rippling water. The sinuous lines of the grid -- and the fine mesh of the Rarrk lines -- reveal an acceptance, even an elaboration, of the uneven surface of the ground. Natural variations in the hues allow the painting to pulse with subtle tonal relationships. It’s as discreetly expressive as an Eva Hesse drawing, allowing the discontinuities of the medium to evoke a sense of organic presence.

The dispute that followed the 1984 exhibition, "Primitivism in 20th Century Art," warned us against interpretation of the sort that rips objects from their native context for contemplation within the museum -- but times have changed, at least in this particular region. Aboriginal bark painting was responsive to market forces as soon as their presence was felt, and now, in fact, art from Western Arnhem Land has echoed the teleological narrative of Western art history, moving away from a naïve, spaceless figuration towards an allover abstraction immediately reminiscent of post-war American painting. A sense of primitive craft remains, however, and gives the works their own distinction: undulating away from the wall, Marundjul’s pieces play against the flatness of Western abstraction, yearning away from the white cube with a sort of homesickness.

It is in this sense that the bark paintings acquire their political dimension as esthetic declarations of land ownership and cultural preservation. Every material used -- from the fire-treated bark to the ochre pigments and delek, the white clay used to create the circular elements in Mawurndjul’s Milmilngkan Site (2007) -- derives from the artists’ immediate geographical surroundings. Even the titles refer to specific locations; form, material and meaning are so tightly interwoven that they acquire a kind of conceptual integrity. But it’s in their neither-here-nor-there identity that the most successful works acquire a resonance that goes beyond the "ethnographic" bracket. Their awkwardness is something to be celebrated.

BEN STREET is a teacher, lecturer and critic living in London.