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Step Into Australian Desert Dreamtime at Olsen Gruin Gallery

LA Weekly May 10, 2019

Jordan Riefe

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Walk into Olsen Gruin Gallery in Culver City and step into another place and time. Surrounding viewers are what look like large-scale abstract expressionist paintings from the mid-century by mavericks who drank, cursed and smoked too much. But titles like "Mamungari ‘nya," "Ngura Pilti" and "Ngayuka mamaku ngura ini Makiri," all painted in 2018, are the first hint these might not be what they look like. In fact, they are figurative paintings by indigenous artists from Central Australia that constitute the dazzling new show, APY Lands LA: Central Desert Painters of Australia, through May 30 in Culver City. Presented in partnership with the Australian Consulate-General Los Angeles, it is the largest collection of Australian indigenous art ever shown in the Southland.

The two dozen-plus works in the show are holdovers from last March's all-women show at the gallery's New York space, with two male artists added for the Los Angeles entry. Practitioners are from Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands, shortened to APY Lands as in the exhibition title. A collective located in the northwest area of southern Australia, it features works by artists from Aboriginal-owned and-managed art centers like Tjala Arts, Kaltjiti Arts, Ernabella Arts, and Mimili Maku Arts.

"Before 1970, artists did not paint on linen. They painted in the sand or on rock. They would use their fingers or they would use ground pigment from ocher," gallery co-founder Emerald Gruin tells the Weekly. "Post-1970, that's when they started working with acrylic and linen, which they typically place on the ground and work around it."

 The focus is on stories from Dreamtime, which has nothing to do with REM sleep but instead is a loose construct of creation myths unfixed in time, where the past, present and future coincide. Yartiji Young's "Tjala Tjukurpa - Honey Ant Story" is just one of a series of large scale works in dynamic primary colors, purples and pinks, featuring ornately articulated circular elements attached by ropey black pathways winding freely through the composition. They represent the Tjala honey ants on the march through their tunnels and byways beneath the Mulga tree in nests a meter underground. Indigenous people across the Northern territory and into South Australia ingesting the honey-like nourishment from the ants' stomachs suggests the vital interreliance between flora, fauna and humankind.

 The Seven Sisters story is addressed in numerous canvases by Sylvia Ken, the Ken Sisters' Collaborative and the Mitakiki's Women's Collaborative. Dots spill across a spread of red and violet, grouping in rows and pyramids stretched over the expanse. With so many dots, it's easy to assume it's yet another view of the honey ants, but instead of looking down the viewer is looking up at the night sky, the constellation of Pleiades to be exact, dwelling place of the Seven Sisters. A nearby star, Nyiru, is a lusty man of dubious character who chases the sisters between Earth and sky, luring them with kampurarpra (bush tomatoes) and an expansive and fruitful lli (fig) tree under which to sleep.Dots are everywhere, strewn over figures and backgrounds alike on Sisters and Ant paintings, obliterating everything. "The dot was introduced in the seventies to obscure sacred imagery. Originally, they would tell stories in the sand, and once they were translated to the canvas they had to obscure the imagery from neighboring tribes or westerners, so they would dot over it," explains Gruin. The palette has veered from traditional earthtones toward primaries, but the influence is otherwise firmly rooted in the past, unadulterated by outside styles.

Horizons seem to have no place in Dreamtime, only the up/down axis pitting ‘Honey Ant' images, from a bird's eye perspective, against Seven Sisters Earthbound views of the stars. "They've never been up in a plane. So, how do they know to visualize what it looks like from the sky?" asks Gruin. "I think there's some human element to visualizing what we look like from the air. Perspectives do change looking at the universe, looking at the Earth."


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