Water Dreaming by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula
Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 07.05.10
Gallery: Kate Owen Gallery
Dates: 06.05.10 : 30.05.10
Johnnny Warangkula Tjupurulla (1918 - 2001) was one of the outstanding artists in the Aboriginal art movement. Warangkula was born around 1925 at Mintjilpirri, south of Lake Mackay. Close by is his major dreaming site Tjilkari. His mother was of Luritja/ Warlpiri/Pintupi descent and his father Luritja/Warlpiri. Johnny was raised in a traditional nomadic lifestyle in the desert, was initiated and learned his Dreamings.
Johnny could remember his first contact with Europeans, recalling his fearful response when seeing an aircraft fly over his land as a young boy. His people believed it to be a 'mamu' or devil. At a later date, his people came into contact with camels for the first time and again hid in fright as they decided the beasts were evil.
All of that is a far cry from the auction rooms of Sotheby's in Melbourne where, in July 1997, his painting 'Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa' changed hands for a then-record $206,000. When he sold the painting at Papunya 25 years previously he received just $150 and remembers this only in terms of the food which it bought at the time. Later, in June 2000, just before he died, that same work would be sold again for $486,500. It's often claimed as one of the main reasons for the introduction of Resale Royalties for artists by the current government – starting June 9th.
Well before that time, however, the National Gallery of Australia had recognised his position in the history in the history of art. In 1984, Director James Mollison claimed that their painting by Johnny W (the Gallery's first purchase of a Western Desert painting) was 'the finest abstract art ever produced in this country'.
Johnny W only began painting after a long time labouring, his efforts contributing to the development of roads, airstrips and settlements in communities such as Hermannsberg, Haasts Bluff, Mt Leibig, Yuendumu and Mt Wedge. He would often only be paid in consumable goods, 'tucker' as he called it - flour, tea, sugar, fresh vegetables and tobacco.
Before the bulk of the Haasts Bluff population was moved to Papunya in 1960, Johnny was selected along with Nosepeg Tjupurulla as an Aboriginal representative to meet the Queen. After settling in Papunya, Johnny served on the Papunya Council with Mick Namarari, Limpi Tjapangati and Kingsley Tjungarrayi.
Geoffrey Bardon's arrival at Papunya inspired the community to begin using western art materials. After the disputes during 1971 and 72 over the artists' open portrayal of secret/sacred material on their boards, Johnny pioneered the development of a distinctive style of his own which came to be known as 'overdotting'. He used several layers of dots to cover over sacred objects, such as bull-roarers in his Dreamings, which were the Water, Fire, Yam and Egret stories. There are also stories from Nyilppi and Nyalpilala which were his father's Dreamings. Geoffrey Bardon labelled this stylistic layering effect as 'tremulous illusion', and in his book, Papunya Tula Art of the Western Desert, Bardon fondly recollects images of Johnny painting with an "intense level of intuitive concentration".
From the very beginning at Papunya, Warangkula stuck to the idea that all his paintings were stories - Aboriginal stories. And because of this 'purity', his works retain an integrity which places them amongst the most significant productions from the seminal art site that was Papunya.
Bardon believed that Johnny's paintings, 'could be measured on a scale of modern aesthetic'. Bardon further offered the idea that the artist used, 'calligraphic line with almost Baroque excitement', an observation which holds true even in the very 'late' and hugely energetic works in this show.
Inspired by the prices now attached to his art, in early 1997, Alice Springs dealer Michael Hollow commissioned Warangkula to do a series of small works. From this series, the artist began a new phase despite failing health which included some large and dynamic paintings in red and yellow, black and white, with ochre highlights. These works emerged slowly over an eighteen month period. But Johnny discovered a new-found freedom, both in expression and in painting technique. Where he was once known for his delicate and soft white dotting, he now attacked the canvas to tell the story with great gusto - jabbing large dots on to the surface to produce roundels and symbols for weapons with great sweeps of his arm and the brush.
It may seem ludicrous to draw parallels between this Aboriginal master and Monet in their respective last years. However one cannot help noticing similarities. Johnny's technique and brushwork bear an eerie resemblance to techniques invented and employed by Monet in his late waterlilly paintings at Giverny. Perhaps this only proves that the mark-making we call art is a fundamental expression of the human spirit as one mind strives to communicate with another in visual terms.
Great painters, past and present, seem to have an additional dimension in their work which may defy description. This evasive quality is born of the synthesis achieved between colour, form, texture and meaning. When viewing paintings by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurulla we find ourselves in a position where the recognition of another elemental level is tantalisingly close and the use of everyday language can become a futile and unproductive response.
A fine selection of Johnny Warangkula's late works are on show this month at Kate Owen Gallery in Rozelle, Sydney - prices ranging from $8,800 to $35,000
Tjkarri by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula