John Kluge’s donation of an extensive collection of Australian aboriginal artworks, presented to the University of Virginia in 1997, was extraordinary. So it makes sense for the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, born from that gift, to pay tribute to the man on the occasion of his 95th birthday. What’s successful about this celebratory exhibition is that it can educate viewers about much more than one person’s philanthropy.
For one thing, there is the matter of patronage. In this day and age, even aboriginal artists from the Western Australian desert do not work in isolation from the wider world of galleries, collectors and criticism. In fact, commissions made by Kluge had a direct effect on the aboriginal art movement by inspiring artists, as a wall panel puts it, “to produce bigger and better pieces.” That may not fit one’s image of “pure” artworks conceived in a cultural bubble; even less so when you consider that the late 1980s saw a craze for aboriginal art among celebrities like Mick Jagger and Yoko Ono.
But, global cross-influences aside, the works are hardly Westernized; they still retain their roots in a culture profoundly different than our own. Ultimately the art’s own strength and diversity is paramount.
Pansy Napangardi’s 1991 “Men’s Dreaming” uses the pointillistic technique characteristic of much aboriginal art, but goes beyond an earth-tone palette with subtle blues and greens. It is a lovely process to read this painting’s form. Concentric rings represent sandhills in the center of the canvas, and are echoed by similar shapes that reside in the bends of two undulating creekbeds. The surface is shimmering, mesmerizing and seductive. So is the sense of meaning embodied in that surface: Ceremony, land and human memory all fuse into a visual whole.
Still, another lesson of this show is that alongside those sorts of deep traditions informing the work, individuality has a place. Tossy Baadjo Nangala’s 1997 “Nyilla (Jupiter Well), Canning Stock Route” is incredibly vivid and bold with its bright reds, yellows and oranges and its pattern of interlocking shapes that seems to rotate slightly in relation to the canvas. It all makes an impression as forceful as a stop sign, but playful and articulate, as though it were another manifestation of the artist’s own face.
Fans of the Kluge-Ruhe are likely to appreciate these effects already, just as they’re likely to feel fortunate that UVA is home to the museum. They can come to revel once again in the breadth of the collection. For newcomers, this exhibition is a good chance to get hooked.