Arthur Palmer - Aboriginal, Oceanic & Tribal Art

Monday, November 15, 2010



“The new job of art is to sit on the wall and get more expensive.”
Robert Hughes

Paul Best & Arthur Palmer. August 2009. Circle Gallery Brisbane.
Paul Best is an Australian painter of wistful commentaries on the common human condition.

A maker of paint laden, insightful comments on & of experience & thought. His works are consistently lyrical statements in his own voice - intense intimate interior monologues –of which the complexity & sophistication is often disguised by deceptively simple ready access iconography.

These works have a quality of wry amusement & a humour most associated with social or political cartoons. Leunig or Petty come to mind. However these paintings go beyond this genre with a surgical ability to strip away the cosmetics to reveal the real flesh. As fine art they differ in that they are lifted beyond any hint of cruelty. The strong point is always compassion & a mixture of bemused understanding tempered with honest bewilderment.
Best is a worker of stiff slightly formal obscure poignant dreamscapes saturated with a fluid intellectual surrealist quality which clarify & layout the interpersonal & social dilemmas of our time & space.


One of Best’s paintings stands out from the Circle Gallery show. This work is a singularly important turning point in recent Australian painting. It offers an image which in total very possibly completely sums up the last four decades of Australian art & the uncomfortable place it has presently arrived at. Make no mistake, Australia has since 1970 endured an uneasy dishonest truce between white painting & black art. Aboriginal art verses the European school . As a real conundrum we can also add the urban Aboriginal art scene, which the others both loath. The one point of agreement in all this is that Traditional Aboriginal contemporary art (Papunya Tula school & other North Australian Aboriginal community art areas) & the European Australian section both view Urban Aboriginal art as either plagiarism & illegitimate or just plain bad art. Given that some Urban Aboriginal Art is highly sophisticated & seriously compelling this position has to be seen as more politics at play than paint?

This schism is much more pervasive & corrosive than the Sydney abstract v/s Melbourne figurative post War storm in a tea cup ever amounted to. Political correctness be damned - the current long term storm in the Art world chardonnay glass is about money & lots of it. The pigs are jostling at the trough in the mud at the bottom of the moral high ground.

When in the early 70s traditional contemporary canvas paintings from Papunya Yuendumu arrived in the city galleries it came as a breath of fresh air. The aesthetics were as undeniable to the educated Australian (& shortly after the rest of the World ) art public as much as the encoded information contained in these painting was utterly inaccessible. There was no hint as to how edgy & risky this style of painting was to the traditional men who decided to apply this new technique & medium to the established culture of their estate owning language groups.

This transformation of ceremonial body paint, shield decoration & ritual ground mosaics of blood , vegetable down & feathers – some of which were viewed traditionally as secret/sacred & dangerous Law matters not to be exposed to outsiders - also left the painters very exposed in their own communities.

All of this was of no matter to the avant-garde Australian middle class for whom this became the new age wallpaper. Very soon it also became of little account to the Aboriginal communities who desperately needed the injection of economic independence this art afforded. As the years go by there is more than a hint that these works, even some aesthetic masterpieces, are no longer giving any real depth of satisfaction to the wider uninitiated audience. We are not talking monetary investment here. This is about an essential fundamental product of art i.e. pleasure- pleasure pure & simple. In fine art you ignore or are ignorant of the pleasure principle at your peril. Modern Art has a function to provide pleasure rather than discover pleasure – ask the French Post impressionists – unless you want to be continually explaining the equivalent of why Wagner is not as bad as he sounds.

In the last decade much art emanating from Traditional Aboriginal communities has crossed over & is indistinguishable from mid C20 abstract expressionism. Belated central desert homage to de Kooning, or Rothko with a mix reminiscent of colour field work done here in the 60’s by Peter Powditch. Art for arts sake or plagiarised wallpaper? No – neither apparently. Reaction to this development from the Art market – dingo took my art history book? Ironically the art market invests these new purely painterly works with if anything more traditional mythology & meaning than the incomprehensible earlier paintings which drip ritual & ceremony.

Australian Painting 2009. Paul Best.

The great Australian loneliness portrait & culturescape;
A faceless Australia ponders the question in our own lounge rooms of when does the pleasure start. Australian Art’s Sandy Stone poignant chronicler of suburbia Barry Humphries character?

Where does the identity begin? Alone & seeking comfort from the possession of art works from an alienated & alien culture.

Who can explain why we are drawn to these works but utterly unable to interrogate them?

We know what we like but have no idea why or when this may cease. In the fickle art world of rapidly changing taste, awareness & curiosity such an ebbing of the romantic tide will be no new experience for Aboriginals who have been left stranded several times before during our combined history thus far.

Is it the more we love Aboriginal Art the less we know about Aboriginals – to know nothing of Aboriginals is to just love their art?

We have stopped staring at Aboriginals & become inured to staring at Aboriginal art - because the result is always the same – we are incapable of allowing this to add or subtract anything to or from our cultural life either as individuals or as a Nation. A benign form of agnostic sympathetic magic.

Australia has a home grown art form with a language that can’t be heard above the applause of the market let alone be comprehended by the great majority of its citizens. Alone in the world with the possible exception of modern Japan?

Such is the nature & character of present Australian high end cultural times. A constant state of perplexed bewilderment mixed with an iron resolve to keep investing resources both financial & emotional well beyond any experience or expectation of reasonable returns or positive outcomes.

Aboriginal vs Australian Art
Results for the past 10 years in percentage growth.

Year Australian Art Australian Aboriginal Art
1994-1995 104.50% 200.10%
1994-1996 147.20% 219.20%
1994-1997 112.00% 616.80%
1994-1998 166.70% 835.30%
1994-1999 249.70% 757.10%
1994-2000 302.00% 989.10%
1994-2001 263.40% 963.60%
1994-2002 297.50% 1060.90%
1994-2003 339.80% 1586.90%
1994-2004 289.90% 1896.90%

This chart is not inclusive of Aboriginal bark paintings from Arnhem Land, Port Keats, the Kimberley, Mornington Is. or Cape York. Les Patterson observed in the ’60 - An Abo’s bark is worse than his bite. By my count there are perhaps 200 serious Bark painting collectors world wide & the fine art market is very disinterested despite some of the great masterwork s very inconveniently being ochre on bark as the preferred medium. The fine art market hates bark & flaky paint.

White is just a paler shade of black.

Ah There will come a time when the Whites will be Black & us Blacks will be White

1790’s Prophecy by senior Aboriginal woman. Port Philip.

Arthur Beau Palmer AD Fine Art (QCA)
+61 (07) 3876 0115 Mob: 0418 845 515
Web: (Artefact Gallery)

Approved to value the following classes for the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Programme:
Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander material culture and contemporary art, Arnhem Land Aboriginal Bark Paintings (19thC to present), Aboriginal Hermannsburg watercolours (1930s to present), Pacific (Melanesian Papua New Guinea, Solomons & Islands, Polynesia & Micronesia), African, Asian, American Indian material culture, Australian Early and Modern Fine Art, International Aviation Art, Trench Art WWI & WWII.


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