It’s rare to step into an exhibition and feel bowled over, but this was the case with Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s exhibition, The Little Things, at Roslyn Oxley9. Over the past decade Nyapanyapa has been a shooting star in the indigenous art firmament but with this body of work she has moved onto another plane.
It’s tempting to avoid the “indigenous” label because, taken purely as an collection of paintings, this show would be a stand-out in any gallery anywhere in the world. To call this work “indigenous art” might be seen as a way of putting it into a pigeonhole and thereby limiting its impact. Yet it could also be argued that for any discussion of Nyapanyapa’s art it’s vital to understand her identity as a Yolngu woman who has spent her entire life within a particular community.
For an indigenous artist the relationship with country is the key to everything, but I’m not speaking about a simple patch of earth. Will Stubbs, who has lived and worked with the Yolngu for over 20 years, has spent a long time trying to understand the way they see the world. That quest has led him down increasingly cosmic byways, trying to explain a concept of time that doesn’t recognise a past, present or future. For Nyapanyapa and her people there is only an eternal now. Whatever happened in the past is still happening, and will be happening again tomorrow. This may be incomprehensible to those of us accustomed to conventional, linear ideas of time, but for the Yolngu it’s the very fabric of reality.
Somewhere in this purple haze lies the secret of Nyapanyapa’s art. She is the most unassuming of personalities – a quiet, largely deaf, elderly lady from a famous clan, who sits at the art centre day afer day, painting up a storm. Stubbs believes the power of her work comes from a focus on “the little things” – which means the long thin needles dropped from a she-oak, the tiny crabs that hide by the sea-shore, and countless small details of the physical and spiritual world.
In this exhibition those little things are inextricably intertwined with the biggest things. The masterpiece of the show is Ganyu, which means “stars”. Measuring 3.6 by 2.4 metres, it is a vision of the sky in which stars dangle like spiky, tropical fruit. Each star resembles a spider or a mollusc, thrusting out appendages in all directions. She uses an earth-coloured palette of natural pigments, producing a sky that isn’t black or blue but various shades of ochre. Paler areas that encroach from the bottom left might well be clouds.
A second large painting is called Djulpan (seven sisters), which refers to one of the most important local Creation stories, but also to the constellation otherwise known as the Pleiades. Three Ganyu Djulpan paintings make the connection explicit. Those trademark explosive stars feature strongly in these pictures, on grounds made up of thousands of tiny, scratchy lines. The ostensible subject is the Heavens but we’re looking at the Earth, or more precisely, at the carpets of tiny needles shed by the trees.
There’s a complex, instinctive rightness about Nyapanyapa’s compositions, although I doubt she has ever given it a moment’s thought. In order to paint like this an artist cannot be at all self-conscious. Whatever signals she is receiving from Nature and the Cosmos have been faithfully translated into a visual language that defies categorisation.
Michael Bell’s Studio Head at the Flinders Street Gallery is as inward-looking as Nyapanyapa’s show is expansive. Obliged to spend long months in his Newcastle studio Bell has taken his prison as his subject. The results reflect an extreme self-consciousness as the artist looks with a connoisseur’s eye at the used paint tubes and brushes, turpsy rags, and other bric-a-brac that clutters up his working space.
Studio table with heads looks at first like a chaotic jumble of studio litter but it’s an intricately conceived picture punctuated by recurrent touches of green, red, yellow and grey. In The Studio with the Goat picture, we see a painting-within-a-painting, framed by a still life of red and green tomato tins, now used to hold brushes.
One could characterise Bell’s work as Metaphysical Pop. He fixates on certain motifs until they become personal icons, from goats, dogs and donkeys to the monkey painter who acts as his surrogate in two small pictures. Bell paints in a loose, cartoonish style, presenting much of his work as self-deprecating comedy. But beyond the maniacally grinning faces there’s a subtle, residual sadness.
Time is on the artist’s mind. A figure holding two red flags is a reminiscence of school days. In one painting we see a birthday cake, in another the cake is half-eaten. A large, stony head on a pedastle is a melancholy self-portrait. Some artists like to portray themselves as incipient geniuses but Bell takes the opposite approach. He appears as a great, lumpen bust with no body and sightless eyes, doomed to sit planted in one spot like the character in Beckett’s novel, The Unnamable; prey to ceaseless thought and reflection, but powerless to act.
One automatically reads the bright colours, cartoonish characters and lively brushwork as cheerful and up-beat. It’s only gradually that a darker aspect emerges. The key work is probably The after party, which looks anything but joyful, with the big stone head looming over a cluttered scene on a platform by the beach. There’s a story to be decoded from this anthology of private symbols, but Bell’s not offering any hints.
There’s no ambiguity about the disturbing nature of Solomon Kammer’s paintings in Cause and Effect at Yavuz Gallery, which show a model’s body being manhandled and manipulated in a way that suggests both therapy and torture. For Kammer, an artist who lives with a medical condition that causes chronic pain, it’s not always easy to make a distinction.
We can be laid low by our own sufferings but another person’s pain is almost inconceivable. We take pleasure in a healthy body but a body in pain is a burden. In Kammer’s paintings the model is pawed and prodded as if the woman was nothing more than meat. There’s an implicit feminist message in the objectification of the female body, but the chief indignity lies in being transformed into a medical specimen in which the subject’s individuality has been stripped away with her clothes.
Although she may live in pain Kammer paints in a strikingly direct, physical manner, with liberal use of the palette knife. She favours sharp contours and contrasts, devoting all her attention to the figures while being disdainful of backdrops – a trait she shares with portraitists such as Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville.
Cause and Effect feels like an extended meditation on Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, in which the medicalised body is displayed for both the doctors and for us, the viewers. The difference this time is that the body is alive, and in place of Dr. Tulp and his learned colleagues we have a heavily tattooed male who takes all sorts of liberties with his patient – if that’s the right word. Faced with these mortifications of the flesh one can see why some artists prefer to gaze at the stars.
Nyapanyapa Yunupingu: The Little Things
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, 28 January – 27 February, 2021
Michael Bell: Studio Head
Flinders St. Gallery, 6 – 24 February, 2021
Solomon Kammer: Cause and Effect
Yavuz Gallery, 4 – 27 February, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February, 2021