George Tjungurrayi

Space and Place

24 September - 22 October, 2011

exhibition essay

The Paintings of George Tjungurrayi: Fingerprints
Chloe Watson

The paintings of George Tjungurrayi can be compared to the uniquely textured surface of a human finger. I find this image particularly compelling at a number of levels: as a formal analogy, as a metaphor for the sensuous experience of looking at one of Tjungurrayi's canvases, and as a way into understanding the complex relationship between the canvas, the artist and that which he paints.

Formally, there is certainly an affinity between these most recent paintings' meticulous linear patterning in alternating colour and the loops, arches and whorls on the skin of a finger. Take, for example, the 183 x 153 cm Untitled canvas from 2010, in which lines in the finest shade of pale blue run around, along, between, those in a cool cream. (Of course, it must be noted that my attempt to describe the colours in these works will inevitably fall short. As a master colourist Tjungurrayi has created indescribably subtle tones.) Together these coloured rivulets dance away from the solid edges of the field and into a breathing vortex of complex, concentrically constructed shapes. These shapes are not finite, but rather melt into one another; they rise and fall according to nuanced variations of colour and changing perspective.

Perhaps these could be understood as paintings of touch. Certainly, at an experiential level, Tjungurrayi's fields are deeply affective. Painted forms emerge from the two dimensional frame of the canvas to physically confront their viewer. ‘Touch' as I use it here takes on a multisensory function. We see the lines on the canvas, and yet we feel their presence, as that central whorl or those uplifting parallel lines create a visceral, vertiginous pull. There is no longer that divide between seeing subject and static object. The viewer has no recourse to devices for mediating distance such as a constancy of orientation or central perspective. We are drawn into the close vision of the artist himself, as he applies his acrylic marks to linen laid flat on the ground.

Returning to our analogy, a fingerprint is a sign of self, a mark of identity. As an ink tracing in police records it is evidence, the replica of a uniquely marked surface. In a similar way, we can understand Tjungurrayi's paintings as replicas, as mimetic surfaces that are the realisation of the artist's deeply felt identification with place - with that vast desert country surrounding Kintore in the Northern Territory. Mimesis becomes a two-layered concept; it is ‘a copying or imitation, and a palpable, sensuous, connection between the very body of the perceiver and the perceived.' This connection occurs as Tjungurrayi paints, and as we spectators respond to Tjungurrayi's painted forms.

For instance, Untitled, 2008, 183 x 152 cm depicts the quivering trajectory of a spear as it travels through space. Tjungurrayi has often returned to this subject in his paintings, referred to as ‘straightening spears'. In this particular work, parallel lines of light lilac and sandy yellow uplift and downturn at either end of the canvas. Like the notes in a chord, they play against each other in reverberating visual rhythms. We can understand the composition not simply as the traced path of a spear, but in terms of the impact of the spear's movement, or the hum as it cuts the air.

Tjungurrayi's artistic vision is an innovative move away from an early Papunya Tula style, which was based more closely around the circle-path-meander of traditional ceremonial iconography from ground designs. His linear compositions flirt with abstraction yet also seem to recreate the extended lines of parallel sand ridges, or the ripples in water holes. So at one level, Tjungurrayi depicts actual country, physically existing geographical locations. However, understanding the paintings purely as maps or landscapes, as reproductions of inert land, does not give justice to the complex mimetic process at work.

The country evoked in Tjungurrayi's paintings encompass a plethora of meaning: the travels of the Tingari ancestors as they made and marked the land, the births and deaths and fights and marriages of kin, the day to day lived experience of place. Marcia Langton writes that in Western Desert culture, ‘places are marked not through physical inscriptions, but through kin and dreaming ties that inscribe the self in place and place in the self.' Furthermore, Tjungurrayi's ‘topographical linework' also refers to the parallel lines of the ‘fluted' carvings of men's ceremonial boomerangs and shields of the Western Desert. Crucially, his meandering lines and shimmering contours reflect a culturally and personally embodied sense of self in place.

These paintings enfold multiplicities, spanning time and space, the spiritual and the aesthetic, line and rhythm. They enfold us too, their humble spectators, into sensuous regions of undulating contours and nuanced tones. Hung and stretched on the white walls of Utopia Art Sydney, Tjungurrayi's shimmering creations present their audience with the chance to lose themselves, just for a moment, in someone else's vision of the world: isn't that the most we could ask of any work of art?

 

The Paintings of George Tjungurrayi: Fingerprints
Chloe Watson

The paintings of George Tjungurrayi can be compared to the uniquely textured surface of a human finger. I find this image particularly compelling at a number of levels: as a formal analogy, as a metaphor for the sensuous experience of looking at one of Tjungurrayi's canvases, and as a way into understanding the complex relationship between the canvas, the artist and that which he paints.

Formally, there is certainly an affinity between these most recent paintings' meticulous linear patterning in alternating colour and the loops, arches and whorls on the skin of a finger. Take, for example, the 183 x 153 cm Untitled canvas from 2010, in which lines in the finest shade of pale blue run around, along, between, those in a cool cream. (Of course, it must be noted that my attempt to describe the colours in these works will inevitably fall short. As a master colourist Tjungurrayi has created indescribably subtle tones.) Together these coloured rivulets dance away from the solid edges of the field and into a breathing vortex of complex, concentrically constructed shapes. These shapes are not finite, but rather melt into one another; they rise and fall according to nuanced variations of colour and changing perspective.

Perhaps these could be understood as paintings of touch. Certainly, at an experiential level, Tjungurrayi's fields are deeply affective. Painted forms emerge from the two dimensional frame of the canvas to physically confront their viewer. ‘Touch' as I use it here takes on a multisensory function. We see the lines on the canvas, and yet we feel their presence, as that central whorl or those uplifting parallel lines create a visceral, vertiginous pull. There is no longer that divide between seeing subject and static object. The viewer has no recourse to devices for mediating distance such as a constancy of orientation or central perspective. We are drawn into the close vision of the artist himself, as he applies his acrylic marks to linen laid flat on the ground.

Returning to our analogy, a fingerprint is a sign of self, a mark of identity. As an ink tracing in police records it is evidence, the replica of a uniquely marked surface. In a similar way, we can understand Tjungurrayi's paintings as replicas, as mimetic surfaces that are the realisation of the artist's deeply felt identification with place - with that vast desert country surrounding Kintore in the Northern Territory. Mimesis becomes a two-layered concept; it is ‘a copying or imitation, and a palpable, sensuous, connection between the very body of the perceiver and the perceived.' This connection occurs as Tjungurrayi paints, and as we spectators respond to Tjungurrayi's painted forms.

For instance, Untitled, 2008, 183 x 152 cm depicts the quivering trajectory of a spear as it travels through space. Tjungurrayi has often returned to this subject in his paintings, referred to as ‘straightening spears'. In this particular work, parallel lines of light lilac and sandy yellow uplift and downturn at either end of the canvas. Like the notes in a chord, they play against each other in reverberating visual rhythms. We can understand the composition not simply as the traced path of a spear, but in terms of the impact of the spear's movement, or the hum as it cuts the air.

Tjungurrayi's artistic vision is an innovative move away from an early Papunya Tula style, which was based more closely around the circle-path-meander of traditional ceremonial iconography from ground designs. His linear compositions flirt with abstraction yet also seem to recreate the extended lines of parallel sand ridges, or the ripples in water holes. So at one level, Tjungurrayi depicts actual country, physically existing geographical locations. However, understanding the paintings purely as maps or landscapes, as reproductions of inert land, does not give justice to the complex mimetic process at work.

The country evoked in Tjungurrayi's paintings encompass a plethora of meaning: the travels of the Tingari ancestors as they made and marked the land, the births and deaths and fights and marriages of kin, the day to day lived experience of place. Marcia Langton writes that in Western Desert culture, ‘places are marked not through physical inscriptions, but through kin and dreaming ties that inscribe the self in place and place in the self.' Furthermore, Tjungurrayi's ‘topographical linework' also refers to the parallel lines of the ‘fluted' carvings of men's ceremonial boomerangs and shields of the Western Desert. Crucially, his meandering lines and shimmering contours reflect a culturally and personally embodied sense of self in place.

These paintings enfold multiplicities, spanning time and space, the spiritual and the aesthetic, line and rhythm. They enfold us too, their humble spectators, into sensuous regions of undulating contours and nuanced tones. Hung and stretched on the white walls of Utopia Art Sydney, Tjungurrayi's shimmering creations present their audience with the chance to lose themselves, just for a moment, in someone else's vision of the world: isn't that the most we could ask of any work of art?