Internalising the frame renders ambiguous the boundary between art and the everyday. Here’s two examples to chew on. First see how Jack Featherstone, the Magic Realist of Braidwood, has a way of positioning the viewer weightless above him as (as we imagine) he sits on a vantage point committing this scene of the Deua Valley, in southern New South Wales, to memory, and to his sketchbook? Then see how he has employed another pictorial device in the way he has framed the distant view of the mountains with the two groups of trees, to the left and right of his primary subject matter. These groups of trees are formally distinctive, strangely synthetic, and yet inviting. They form parallel bands, like saplings planted too closely together, but they are somehow out of scale, sitting in the middle distance. They act like curtains, framing the scene ahead of us, yet allowing the continuity of the landscape behind this plane to show through. To this viewer, they suggest a mobile vantage point, a capacity to look around corners. Very seductive.
The surface of this painting, (painted in 2007, in acrylic and oil on bark, 270 x 770) renders the depiction of these and other formal elements in minute detail with tiny dots and blobs of pigment. His perspectival control of deep space is enhanced by the intensification of blue as the far distant mountain ranges roll on past the bush-covered middle ground. There are introductory figures in the foreground (Jack’s family), and the viewer is invited to follow as the group sets off along the road as it twists and turns through the pictorial space.
By contrast, consider this painting by the late Micky Dorrng (b. ca. 1940, d. 2006), of the Liyagawumirr clan, who lived on Milingimbi and Elcho Islands in Central Arnhem Land. Sure, I accept that it’s an extreme example to choose for a comparison of the manipulation of form and space, nevertheless, there are commonalities to be teased out. Micky Dorrng’s painted abstract motifs are derived from ceremonial body painting designs, the referent for which is the djirrididi (kingfisher) narrative. As abstract as you can get. Yet some have claimed that the horizontal marks are the marks left by the tide on Mangrove tree trunks. Be that as it may, when painted on the body, these bold parallel brush strokes vary between vertical, horizontal and diagonal configurations, painted on the chest and upper thighs. Rendered on canvas or bark, they have the capacity to produce complex visual ambiguities, which we read through the lens of abstraction. It has been suggested (by Howard Morphy, and others) that the capacity for Yolngu painting to confuse the eye relates to their invocation of ancestral power.
This example, a small (life-size) canvas, was painted in 2001, (520 x 415, in ochres and acrylic on canvas). The viewer’s attention to the geometry of its forms oscillates between the framing bands and the central panel. Like the architecture of a theatre stage, the bottom panel (six colours: red, white, yellow, white, red, and white) establishes a foreground, mirrored by the upper lintel-like panel above. These top and bottom panels overlap the curtain-like panels on either side (painted in a different sequence: yellow, white, red, white, yellow, and white). When seen together with the side panels, you see how the artist has created the effect of a proscenium, the perfect illusion of inside-outside space.
When you analyse the central panel, you find it is composed of twenty five bands, starting and finishing top and bottom with yellow, and with yellow in the central horizontal axis. The eye plays tricks on the viewer: not only via the spatial effects of framing, foreground and background, but schematically. Why are the colours sequenced differently, horizontally and vertically, one asks? Then experience the excitement of discovery as you decode the sequence, realising that the different order of the bands above and below, and on the sides, also recur in the central panel, from different starting points. It’s harder than it seems. Your eye plays hopscotch as it searches for the starting point for each sequence.
And now ask: how is it that his geometry works so perfectly, given the irregularity of the lines of colour, drawn freehand, twelve lines up and twelve lines down from the horizontal axis, then six and six on the sides, then six and six above and below? The artist’s command over colour, material, and form, apparently so simple, is amazingly engaging. The eye never tires of decoding its rhythms. The surface never stops moving. The spatial ambiguities never stay still.
As with the Jack Featherstone, the viewer is imaginatively drawn into the central space, equally curious, no matter how different the referents may be. The first draws us into a detailed recounting of memorable experiences – almost as if the artist can’t believe his own eyes. The latter painting persuades us that the painted surface is permeable, and, as it references its origins as body paint, how such a painting may be experienced from the other side by the person who wears the painting on his chest.
In each case, pictorial and abstract, each operating within their own poetic code, one sees a process of layering of space, and a control over spatial ambiguity. Each sits at opposite ends of a spectrum of representational intent, cultures apart, and yet each employs pictorial devices that share common effects. Familiarity breeds… wonder.
P.S. The question of “Aboriginal abstraction” is discussed in more detail on ArtWranglers.