How welcome to hear an assessment of Central Australia’s “vital artistic community” as one of encounter between the cultures, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. It may seem obvious to those who have found their creative home within it, but the spectre of cultural appropriation has tended to silence such an appreciation.
John Kean (pictured with artist Marina Strocchi) was art advisor at Papunya Tula for more than two decades (1977-99). These days he’s an independent curator and writer, and is undertaking PhD research into the work of four of Papunya Tula’s founding artists. He is thus well placed to understand the rich artistic culture into which Marina Strocchi walked when she arrived in The Centre from Melbourne in 1992. Strocchi’s work from that year to the present is the subject of a survey exhibition that was opened by Kean at Araluen last Friday.
Kean recalled the first exhibition held at Araluen, a major reassessment of the art of Albert Namatjira. Accompanied by a symposium, “it kicked off Araluen’s role in the cultural life of the nation” – raising awareness not just of its “star artists” but of the whole creative community, with people like Namatjira as its “bedrock”. It was his art that had opened many people’s eyes to The Centre, building “the eagerness to come here and witness one of the world’s most wonderful landscapes”.
In the more than 80 years since Namatjira began painting, an archive of images has amassed by artists from all over who have come through here, mixing cultures, impressions and times. And it is in this mass of work that Strocchi’s art “has landed and can be understood”.
Her years spent at Haasts Bluff or Ikuntji, as the founding coordinator of the art centre there, put her in the artistic company of the major Papunya Tula painter Johnny Warrangkula, who came in from desert to Haasts Bluff in 1932, and spent much of his life there.
Strocchi and Warrangkula “share knowledge and experience of that area”, said Kean, describing it as “a major site for the meeting of cultures, a melting pot”. Namatjira also used to go there regularly and its landscapes became important subjects in his oeuvre – the same subjects as Strocchi’s early forays into landscape painting, a series of which are encountered as visitors enter the gallery.
Left: Muruntji Way 1, 1995
In these “incredibly humble small paintings” the artist can be seen getting to know the landscape – from a distance at first, but as she becomes more familiar, getting drawn into its mass, its density and meaning. Seeing this evolution is “one of the delights” offered by a survey exhibition.
Kean commended Strocchi for staying with a commitment to her own artistic practice.
“When I turned up at Papunya I was an aspiring young artist and like her I was faced with meeting Pintupi, Luritja, and Anmatyerre artists of overwhelming talent. They have this unconscious ease and flow about their work. I was timid and frightened by the scale of their vision and confidence and backed off being a professional artist or having those aspirations.
“But fortunately Marina persisted, she trusted the strength of her own vision and opened her heart to those artists she encountered and started an exchange with them.”
She was also deeply in touch with the masters of European modernism. Her painting The Kitchen, 2002, (at left) shows a shelf of books revealing the artists she communes with – the Europeans Matisse, Modigliani, Cobra, Picasso, Klee, Morandi; the Australians Fairweather, Papunya Tula, Tuckson, Larwill, Roar Studios, Fred Williams and of course Ikuntji; but also Pharaonic Egypt and (as Strocchi herself pointed out) other artistic traditions from Oceania and Africa.
All artists take in elements of how other artists have seen the world, but the best assimilate their affinities into their very physical being: “Like jazz musicians they are looking for the deeper rhythms that run through culture and that are reprised and revived over time.” The capacity to absorb this language is what makes artists exceptional and Kean puts Strocchi in this category, noting the cosmopolitan vision of her work.
She paints with a strong sense of sharing her subjects with the viewer, a generosity which should not be mistaken for a lack of seriousness. Lots of artists obscure their subjects – “they’re private things”– but with Strocchi “there’s a reality, a particular reference and honesty about her work”.
Her subjects are not confined to The Centre. Through a language of pictographs she has developed a personal cartography, leading the viewer on a journey from the desert, along the railway, with incident and detail here and there, all the way to the Top End with its boats and mangroves. (Indeed in the show’s largest works Top End landscapes become the exclusive subject – see below.)
Right: Red Tractor, 2003.
Beyond the subjects there is the surface of work, which “tells you a lot about the artist’s regard for their craft”. Kean urged viewers to read Strocchi’s “musical” surfaces – “that’s what the jazz is”: a subtle patination of matt paint, extra-matt, a little bit of gloss, back to matt, from top to bottom, edge to edge – “one of her real skills as a painter”.
A survey is a major moment in an artist’s life, and opportunity only accorded to major artists, said Kean: it allows them to see their works in conversation across a room, and over time. For viewers the invitation is to not only enjoy the work, but to enter into that dialogue, and in the case of Strocchi, there is no better place to do it than Araluen, in the landscape where she “found her voice”.
– Kieran Finnane
Below: Top End Scrub (state II), 2009