This show contains a good selection of small pictures from those early days by artists such as Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri, Mick Namarari Tjapaltarri, Uta Uta Tjangala, Pinta Pinta Tjapananka and Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, the latters Water dreaming with rain and lightning (1972) being the most complex and layered of compositions.
Makinti Napanangka, Untitled (Rockhole Site of Lululnga), 2001(detail)Credit:Utopia Art Sydney
Disputes and confusion over money hastened the end of Bardons time at Papunya, a tragic episode covered in the documentary Mr. Patterns (2004), which is screening in one corner of this exhibition. The film does justice to Bardons achievements in a series of interviews recorded at the end of his life when he was ravaged by ill health.
Over the past two decades, there have been a series of important exhibitions devoted to the Papunya Tula story, starting with Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000, along with further surveys at the National Museum of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria.
In 2008, Vivien Johnson published Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, and in 2018, Melbourne University Press brought out a landmark edition of Geoff Bardons writings, Papunya: A Place Made After a Story. The most notable recent publication is Alec OHallorans full-scale biography of Mick Namarari, The Master from Marnpi (2018), which also serves as a history of the desert art movement.
When it comes to writing about Papunya Tula, there is a huge amount of material. The good news is that one need know nothing at all about the complexities of Indigenous art to appreciate the show at the S H Ervin.
The paintings are their own best argument, especially as we watch the artists beginning to work on canvas, some on a massive scale. The most accomplished in this regard may have been Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, who is represented in this survey by only one substantial work, Ngarlu Love Story (undated).
Clifford Possum Tjapaljarri, Ngarlu love story (detail)
During the 1980s, the energy slowly drained out of Papunya, but this was only the prelude to an entirely new phase, when the women started painting. By the mid-1990s, the pace was being set by artists such as Doreen Reid Nakamarra, Ningura Napurrula, Naata Nungurrayi, all of them well represented in this selection.
Among other highlights, pause to consider Makinti Napanangkas Untitled (Rockhole site of Lupulnga) (2001), which is as distinctive as anything in the show, with its wavering lines of ochre and lavender; or an Untitled painting of 2017 by Mantua, so finely detailed its a miracle of patient application.
Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, Untitled, 1998 (detail)Credit:Utopia Art Sydney
To give some impression of the amazing variety of styles that emerged from under the Papunya umbrella, Hodges has assembled two large blocks of small, square canvases comprising a total of 75 panels.
Its a showstopping presentation, but probably not as impressive as a wall on which we find a sequence of large-scale works by Naata Nungurrayi, Mick Namarari, Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula and Ningura Napurrula. These paintings, by two women and two men, could not be more distinctive or accomplished.
If I had to pinpoint the distinctive feature of the best Papunya painting, it would be the effortless sense of grandeur one finds in these canvases.
With Turkey Tolson in particular, it seems as if there was never a moments hesitation when it came to laying in a long, straight line of dots. If it wasnt a cultural non-sequitur, it would be tempting to ascribe a classical spirit to this work.
Then again, perhaps Papunya Tula does deserve to be called classical. Not only does so much of this work display an extraordinary sense of calm and equilibrium, the community served as the birthplace for an efflorescence of Indigenous painting that would engulf the Australian art world.
Before the early 1970s, Aboriginal artists had never painted their stories with acrylic on canvas using a traditional lexicon of signs and symbols.
That groundbreaking innovation, engineered by Geoff Bardon, translated one of the worlds oldest living artforms into an utterly contemporary movement.
It was a moment in which the foundations of Australian culture underwent a tectonic shift. Half a century later, looking at these works, one can still feel the earth trembling.
Papunya Tula: 50 Years 1971-2021
S.H.Ervin Gallery, until April 4.
John McDonald is an art critic and regular columnist with Good Weekend.
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