Rover Thomas at Sydney Contemporary
An art fair, at its best, is about revelation – the unexpected work you come across as you round a corner or move to the back of a booth. So it was at Sydney Contemporary, now held yearly at Carriageworks, Australia’s premier art fair since the folding of the Melbourne Art Fair in recent years.
The 2017 incarnation brought together the work of some 500 artists. At a guess, I saw about four-fifths of what was on display. But it was on the darkened walls of a booth belonging to art consultant Tim Klingender that I was struck by that revelation.
Included here were three works by Rover (Julama) Thomas, examples of whose later work I’d seen previously but by which I had been largely unaffected. For a few minutes I escaped the relatively shallow time of contemporary art and landed in a universe absolutely other to those bright and partitioned surrounds. The life evinced in those most elemental of gestures and materials – cloth, stick, gum, earth – seems worthy of touching on here.
Rover Thomas was from the eastern Kimberley. For most of his life, he worked as a stockman and fence builder before eventually settling at the Warmun camp in Turkey Creek, where he picked up a brush in the early 1980s. He became renowned in the Warmun for his Kurirr Kurirr, a dance relating to the visitation of the artist’s mother’s spirit following her death in a car crash on the flooded road to Turkey Creek when the artist was 10.
The Kurirr Kurirr involved dancers holding plywood boards on their shoulders, later painted on by Warmun artists under the encouragement and enthusiasm of nurse and art dealer Mary Macha. Thomas’s Ord River (1984) is one such early piece. Displayed by Klingender, it depicted a dark river and bank of sand snaking and bifurcating across a ground of deep red-brown ochre. Outlining the river and rectangular surface were white clay dots, made using a stick, which Thomas and other Kimberley artists stippled around their bold forms.
Thomas’s career as a painter was short. He was in his late 50s when he painted Ord River and would die about 15 years later. But the intensity of life, closeness to materials, and transcendental complexity he brought to his paintings led to a painterly wealth that I think highlights the relative poverty of some Western contemporary art.
From a separate wall hooted an exquisite Owl (1989), painted by Thomas using natural earth pigments gathered from owl-related dreaming sites, a few years after Ord River. It is one of 12 known owl paintings by the artist, two of which live in Australian institutions, the rest now in international collections. That’s representative of a broader trend for Indigenous works of this calibre and scarcity, according to Klingender, who was a director at Sotheby’s in Australia before overseeing the first major auction of Australian Indigenous art in London a couple of years ago. The most important of this country’s art is going overseas.
From the upper centre of the small canvas a pair of surprised orange eyes pinned me as the strange skeletal form of the owl came into focus. The dark ground, showing strokes of the artist’s hand and seams of pigment where the layers overlapped, was shiny and sticky in parts. The wet-on-wet application of dots using an unstable gum binder was what would have resulted in sections of them dropping off.
In Thomas’s earlier works, a host of unlikely elements were known to contribute to the uneven surfaces, including dog hair and the fat and sugar from meat trays in which he mixed pigments. For me, this instability of surface added to the character of the work, heightening the sense of it having seemingly emerged directly from the elements.
By the time Thomas painted Djugamerri (1991) he was using linen and mixing his ochres with the water-soluble gum of the kurrajong. This resulted in surfaces more consistent and less haphazard. The subject of later works goes back to his beginnings along the Canning Stock Route in the Great Sandy Desert, where his father had been buried. The forms and colours of these works evoke Kimberley rock formations and a rock art once inseparable from them.
In Djugamerri, the two large ovoid black forms represent the spirits of ancestors found in the two hills between Wyndham and Kununurra in the eastern Kimberley. The yellow line separating them, running centrally from lower right to upper left, depicts the road between those hills and the Ord River, which is represented by a band of black running closer to the bottom of the painting. A smaller ovoid shape beside the left ancestor refers to the location of a lock-up, according to Thomas. The way the black shapes, trace of yellow dots and pink-earth ground hold this canvas relates to a life utterly tied to a ground much larger.
At its worst the art market is somewhat like a pyramid scheme, a consortium of cashed-up buyers converging around artists believed to be the next huge thing. Art fairs are perhaps the clearest expression of this. Acquisition here is like trophy-hunting, bringing art into a broader field of financial speculation. If less pernicious than property speculation, it’s perhaps even more capable of distorting the way people view and appreciate things. While a north-facing view has intrinsic value, at least in this hemisphere, a work of art’s non-monetary value is highly subjective. This is where the market – driven by aggressive branding, often aided by the media – takes over and stakes claim to quality and value. It’s not always a racket, of course: sometimes it’s just plain conservatism and poor taste.
Leaving aside the hooch and hype, art fairs offer dealers an opportunity to introduce large audiences to the work of artists in which they truly believe. Finding homes for art is important for a process of circulation beyond the smokescreen of capital and profile; artists need to shed the past, namely their old work, in order to move forward and produce new life. Art-buying can still be a happy coincidence rather than a detached investment. If collectors and buyers are really lucky at these events, they will encounter an object whose name tag means nothing, one that beckons their minds into new realms.
It was odd, or perhaps not so odd, to be reminded of the depth and potency of Indigenous painting in the context of a four-day pop-up shop. In reality it highlights the rewards of these events for which dealers often reserve their most prized offerings. The collection of Indigenous paintings I saw in Klingender’s stand was among the finest I’ve seen. They have or will make some people a lot of money. But what works of this intensity help to clarify is that the sacred and scarce in art isn’t material, or related to the possibility of acquiring objects, but experiential.
Art is inherently undervalued, in my view, at least the examples that will thrive for the experiences they offer when the chips are down. For those of us who have the opportunity to be humbled by some of these works, as I was by Thomas’s, the rewards are boundless.
MULTIMEDIA This Is Not Art
Venues throughout Newcastle, September 28-October 1
MUSIC Uranquinty Folk Festival
Venues throughout Uranquinty, NSW, September 29-October 2
CULTURE The Costume Designer: Edith Head and Hollywood
Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria, September 29-January 21
THEATRE Hay Fever
Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until October 8
THEATRE Les Misérables
Arts Theatre, Adelaide, September 28-October 7
THEATRE The Bookbinder
Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, September 27-October 8
Rookwood Cemetery, Sydney, until September 24
THEATRE Angels in America
Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, until September 24
MUSIC Classic Album Sundays presents Björk ‘Homogenic’
The Globe, Sydney, September 24
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 23, 2017 as "Element of surprise". Subscribe here.