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Object of the Week: Leaves

Gloria Petyarre’s thirteen-foot-long canvas, Leaves, is a work that stops you in your tracks. It invokes the senses: hearing, seeing, and even feeling. The intricate, seemingly endless, white strokes evoke the movement and gentle patterns of leaves on, or fallen from, trees, the delicate movement of waist-high grass in a wind-swept field, or the long, waving fur of an animal on the move.

This feathery, leafy style that has become a common theme in Petyarre’s work was developed over decades. In the late 1970s, Petyarre came to prominence as a batik painter, before taking up painting on canvas in the late 1980s. Her use of sophisticated batik-making techniques, combined with the referencing of body markings associated with women’s ceremonies, shaped the unique forms of painting done in the Utopia area of Australia’s Northern Territory in the 1980s.[1]

In the 1990s, her work progressively increased in size and painterly precision. She began supplanting her dots and lines with elongated drop-forms in feathery layers “that move over the surfaces of her work with the velocity of wind in foliage or the fluidity of water currents.”[2]

This more painterly leaf design seems a natural progression.

“Petyarre grew up learning traditional techniques of reading the landscape to identify foods, medicinal plants, and everything else that was needed to thrive. Sitting under mulga bushes, helping the elder women prepare their seeds for small cakes, she would see the leaves swirl overhead. At the same time, she could listen to elders discussing the days when grasses and wildlife were more abundant.”[3]

Gloria Petyarre is part of an extraordinary family of women artists. Her six sisters—Kathleen, Nancy, Ada, Myrtle, Violet, and Jean—are all internationally acclaimed artists. Gloria’s niece Elizabeth Kunoth Kngwarray, and great-niece Genevieve Kemarr Loy, are well-known artists, as is her niece, Abie Loy Kamerre, whose work, Awelye “Women’s Ceremony,” is also in SAM’s collection. Petyarre’s and her artistic family’s work draws on the surroundings and rituals of their community in Utopia, in Australia’s Central Desert, Northern Territory. Gloria and her sisters had a classical education in an aboriginal world view that has survived tens of thousands of years in an arid spinifex country. Growing up, they walked across their vast estate, moved according to the principles of rotational land navigation, and honored the other species they learned from.

These Utopian women began painting to enlighten outsiders and rebel against the white cattle ranchers who took over their land. As these outsiders began moving in, they polluted water holes and demonstrated a disinterest in the features of the landscape. An inspiration to create came from recognizing that outsiders were ignorant of the depth of knowledge they had about their environment. These artists turned to painting to demonstrate how they had managed to maintain and honor their country, with all its species, foodstuffs, and medicines. They relied on a seed economy, and noticed that leaves had strong medicines to offer, with particular potency when they were falling off the trees. Petyarre’s work offers an urgent reminder of Indigenous knowledge of the landscape—what may seem like scruffy sandhills can be a utopian ideal, filled with vibrant resources that we need to learn to recognize better.[4] She created this work as a study of leaves swirling through space. With her knowledge of the medicinal properties of certain plants, “she takes it upon herself to focus attention on the moment that the leaves fly.”[5]

The next time you visit SAM, make sure to spend a few minutes with this work, you’ll see it right when you enter the museum. What senses does Leaves invoke in you?

– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

[1] Art Gallery of New South Wales, Gloria Tamerre Petyarre Artist Profile, https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/artists/petyarre-gloria-tamerre/, accessed December 2, 2020.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Pamela McClusky, Wally Caruana, Lisa G. Corrin, and Stephen Gilchrist, Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art: Kaplan & Levi Collection ([Seattle]: Seattle Art Museum, 2012): 114.
[4] Interview with Pamela McClusky, December 7, 2020.
[5] Pamela McClusky, “Completing the Map,” in Chiyo Ishikawa et al., A Community of Collectors: 75th Anniversary Gifts to the Seattle Art Museum (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2008): 76, 81.
Image: Leaves, 2002, Gloria Tamerr Petyarre, synthetic polymer paint on canvas
70 7/8 x 157 1/2 in., Gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, in honor of Virginia and Bagley Wright, and in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2012.21 ©Gloria Petyarre

Virtual Art Talks: All About Walkabout

As we continue to reflect on the ways that living in quarantine impacts our daily rhythms, Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art, is here to share artwork propelled by walking. Walking becomes one of our rhythms that adjusts to each landscape we cross. Translating that rhythm into paint became a goal for Dorothy Napangardi who walked hundreds of miles across her homeland. She spoke of the unconditional happiness and freedom she felt when she traversed her family’s country and slept beside them with stars as a canopy.

With fewer cars on the roads and the rare airplane in the sky, more of us are walking as a way of getting outside. Often, we are walking without destination, but rather, just to walk. How have you become aware of your surroundings differently on your daily walks? Let the artwork of Dorothy Napangardi, on view in Walkabout at SAM, inspire you to put on your mask and take a stroll through your neighborhood, giving plenty of space to the other pedestrians around you. Maybe your path will follow the one suggested by Pam at the end of the video, and lead you to the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Walkabout: The Art of Dorothy Napangardi at Seattle Art Museum is filled with Napangardi’s paintings from 2000–13 and takes us to the shimmering salt lake, where she absorbed indigenous laws and stories from the land and her family. Visit these large-scale and intricate paintings in person once SAM is able to reopen.

We are humbled by the generosity of our donors during this unique time. Your financial support powers SAM Blog and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again. Thanks to a generous group of SAM trustees, all membership and gifts to SAM Fund will be matched up to $500,000 through June 30!

Welcome Home, Ancestral Modern!

Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan-Levi Collection recently concluded a tour to four museums where it opened thousands of eyes to the visionary innovations of a new chapter of art history. When this exhibition first opened in 2012 in Seattle, one critic described it as:

National and international visitors came to Seattle and paid attention to this gathering of art which led to a connection with the American Federation for the Arts through their board member, Kimerley Rorchach. The AFA took on the responsibility for finding other museums and organizing the logistics for traveling the exhibition. During three years, it was seen at the Frist Center for the Arts in Nashville, the Chazen Art Museum in Madison, the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, and the Audain Museum in Whistler. 

Amazingly enough, the entrance to the exhibition often focused on a painting that has the startling quality of a stop sign, by painter Ngilpirr Spider Snell, who is warning you not to get too close to a sacred body of water that is being guarded by a snake. 

That warning leads into looking at dots, mazes and linear patterns that may not always be what they seem. In Australian Aboriginal art, dots can trace the journey of a creative ancestor.

Or dots can punish a boy who has stolen an emu’s heart by turning him into a colorful whirlwind

A maze can be a map of an artist’s homeland filled with sandhills.

And linear dashes of paint may conjure up leaves full of medicinal strength blown across a windswept desert. 

This art constantly offers many new visual experiences—peering underground to see yams grow; trekking over vast salt lakes; following the trail of a blue-tongued lizard or encountering a lightning-spitting serpent in swirling water. It is endowed with the vision of the world’s oldest living cultures whose artists have ushered in an indigenous renaissance since the 1970s. They focus our attention on the remarkable continent these communities have managed for centuries.    

At each venue, the exhibition was accompanied by texts written by SAM, and designers put the art in interpretive themes also established by SAM.  Throughout the tour, the couple whose collection was being featured made their way to the openings to speak with the press, educators, staffs, and members of each museum. Thanks to Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi for making this extraordinary tour possible, and to all the artists whose creativity continues to challenge our eyes to adjust to what they consider significant. 

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Installation view of Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan-Levi Collection, Seattle Art Museum, 2012, photo: Nathaniel Wilson. Kurtal, 2005, Ngilperr Ngalyaku Spider Snell, © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VISCOPY, Australia. Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming (detail), 1996, Kathleen Petyarre, © Kathleen Petyarre. Walu (detail), 2008, Tommy Mitchell, © Tommy Mitchell. Yunarla (detail), 2010, Yukultji Napangati, © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VISCOPY, Australia. Leaves (detail), 2002, Gloria Tamerr Petyarre, © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VISCOPY, Australia, photo: Paul Macapia. Audain Art Museum, Whistler, BC, Canada, photo: Pamela McClusky. Audain Art Museum opening with Bob Kaplan and Margaret Levi, and Director, Curtis Collins.

Object of the Week: Swamps West of Nyrripi

Home is often hard to define, and even harder to depict. It can be a place where our childhood myths and memories reside, a more present-tense sense of community, or, perhaps, a place linked to a specific person. In Swamps West of Nyrripi (My Father’s Country) by Australian artist Ngoia Pollard Napaltjarri, the concept of home is represented through a language of symbolic abstraction.

Beautifully irregular red ovals punctuate the variegated surface of the canvas. From afar, the undulating patches of light and dark gray appear as cross hatching, but closer inspection reveals that this is an optical effect—the background is in fact black, with meticulously placed white dots inside and around the red contours. These imperfect and lopsided ovals, stacked precariously one on top of the other, can also be read from an aerial perspective, and thus take on a more topographical or map-like quality.

For Napaltjarri, these ovals signify abundant areas of water—such as swamps and lakes—that are found throughout the region of her father’s homeland, a sacred Warlpiri territory. The white dots, too, carry symbolic meaning: they represent the dry earth cracking as water evaporates. On a more spiritual level, the artist’s act of painting honors the sacred power of the watersnake who resides in the region, and acts as the custodian of the area’s lakes and swampland. The presence and absence of water are environmental conditions constantly in tension, but Napaltjarri manages to find the harmony in such oppositional forces.

Swamps West of Nyrripi (My Father’s Country) is featured in the new exhibition Walkabout: The Art of Dorothy Napangardi, in conversation with work by another Australian artist, Dorothy Napangardi, whose meticulous paintings are similarly connected to her homeland, the Tanami Desert region, and the specificity of that place. With their intricate dotting and abstract patterns, these large-scale paintings are even more awe-inspiring in person.

Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Swamps West of Nyrripi (My Father’s Country), 2006, Ngoia Pollard Napaltjarri, acrylic on Belgian linen, 46 × 60 in., Gift of Agatha and Stephen Luczo, 2017.1.3 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Wilkinkarra

The year 2016 wasn’t all bad, and in fact it proved a remarkable year for the growth of SAM’s permanent collection. Just in the area of paintings, the museum acquired Robert Colescott’s colorful Les Demoiselles d’Alabama: Vestidas, on view on the third floor at the top of the elevators; the beautiful Nicolas Colombel Cupid and Psyche now installed in the large European art gallery on the fourth floor; and quite a few other cool things. The largest painting SAM acquired, and among the most visually striking, is Wilkinkarra, a blast of spotted color spread over a 6-by-10-foot canvas, from Australian Aboriginal woman artist Mitjili Napanangka Gibson.

Wilkinkarra came to SAM from the distinguished collection of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, out of which a whole survey of Australian Aboriginal art was culled. Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art came to SAM in 2012 and showcased more than 100 artworks that, for many of us, provided an introduction to the history and thriving culture of Australian Aboriginal painting.

When encountering something new, we often try to connect it to something we already know and understand. This is natural because our brains are wired to make sense of new experiences and stimuli by comparing them to ones that already exist in our mental databank. Looking at Wilkinkarra, I was struck by how the aesthetic is distinctively “modern.” Countless bright pops of bold color—pinks, purples, blues, yellows, and oranges—emerge in organic patterns, encircled in heavy black outlines. The dotting approach echoes pointillist painting in the late 20th century, and we could also picture this piece fitting cleanly into newer schools of abstract art.

Only this is not an abstraction, but a representation of a specific landscape, pictured from a bird’s-eye view, and created within a unique culture and school of art-making. While we might see immediate, purely visual connections to the Modern art that we already know, there are still more meaningful connections to be made.

In the exhibition catalogue for Ancestral Modern, Lisa Graziose Corrin finds one of those connections in the idea of journeying. First, note that the features of the land itself, and the idea of moving through the land, have special meaning in Aboriginal culture: “Mitjili Napanangka Gibson’s Wilkinkarra refers to a ritual walkabout in her homeland. For Aboriginal artists, travel through the landscape is spiritual, something performed as well as painted. The ritual walkabout and the represented walkabout are equally significant mappings of sacred cultural experience. Both ensure the continuation of Aboriginal cultural memory that is deeply embedded in the topography of ceremonial places.”¹

Second, consider Corrin’s idea that “At one level or another, contemporary culture is a traveling culture.” The city of Seattle plays host to crowds of neo-nomads. The actions of moving, traveling, journeying, and migrating affect many of us in profound ways, shaping how we understand ourselves and how we relate to the people and places we encounter. Global Modern and contemporary art reflects these ideas. At SAM we see it in works like Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, and in William Kentridge’s Shadow Procession. Lawrence, Kentridge, and now Gibson remind us that sharing about where we go, and what we go through, is a very human thing to do.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

¹ Lisa Graziose Corrin, “Staging Australian Aboriginal Art,” Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art, exhibition catalogue, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, in association with Yale University Press, 2012; 46.
Image: Wilkinkarra, 2007, Mitjili Napanangka Gibson (Australian Aboriginal, Warlpiri people, Western Desert, Northern Territory, born ca. 1940), synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 78 3/4 x 120 1/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan, 2016.25.

SAM Art: Elles: SAM is ending, but women artists are still here

Near the center of Australia, out of a station named Utopia, a group of women have painted their way to fame. They are among the leading names in Australian Aboriginal art and many attribute their fluid use of acrylics to years of experience with painting bodies for ceremonies. One of the younger artists is Abie Loy, who began painting at the age of 22, and was mentored by the older generations. Each Utopia woman has developed her own style, but all rely on consistency and repetitive structure. Awelye is composed of rectangles that embody a multitude of minor variations. Loaded brushstrokes define the frameworks, while tiny white dots offset a black background. The artist credits ceremony as a source for inspiration, but one outsider’s reading of the accumulated surface is to see it as a vast array of windows onto another world.

While this is the final week to see Elles: SAM, many works by women artists remain on view at SAM within our permanent collection and special exhibition galleries. Paintings like Awelye can be seen at SAM as a result of a longtime and continuing commitment to great artists, regardless of whether they are men or women

Awelye “Women’s Ceremony”, 2006, Abie Loy Kamerre (Australian Aboriginal, Anmatyerr people, Utopia, Central Desert, Northern Territory, born 1972), acrylic on linen, 40 3/16 x 59 13/16 in., Gift of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan in honor of Mimi Gardner Gates, 2009.19, © Abie Loy Kamerre. Currently on view in the Contemporary and Australian Art gallery, third floor, SAM downtown.

Gearing up for Remix!

Hey there! It’s Natalie Dupille, SAM’s newest PR intern. I’m excited to be working here, and even more excited for tomorrow—and not just because June 1 is my 21st birthday. Tomorrow is Remix, SAM’s hippest quarterly event, and it promises an evening jam-packed with performances, talks, dancing, DJs, and more.

I’m totally intrigued by Seattle band Midday Veil, who will be fusing mesmerizing, hypnotic rock meditations and vibrant projections to grace us with unique multimedia performances at 9:00 and 10:45 pm in the South Hall. On top of that, there’s the collaborative music and art installation by SAM and Olson Kundig Architects, inspired by the Theaster Gates exhibition, which runs through July 1. Join us in the Chase Open Studio, where, in addition to listening stations and hands-on activities, DJ Riz presents the Stairway to Vinyl Listening Party, where he’ll spinning LPs from the Record Store’s robust collection of records throughout the evening.

Remix is also a great opportunity to check out SAM’s newest exhibit, Ancestral Modern, an exuberant exhibition of contemporary art from one of the world’s oldest living cultures that includes more than 100 artworks created by Australian Aboriginal artists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Cellist Paul Rucker will be creating “Sonic Interpretations” live in Ancestral Modern at 9:15 and 10:30 pm tomorrow, a surefire way to experience an already rousing exhibition.

Having never before attended Remix, I am thrilled to not only be able to attend, but also to be a part of this exciting event. Looking forward to all that and more, hopefully my enthusiasm is contagious, and I will see you there!

PS- The first 50 people in rainbows get in for free. Rock that ROYGBIV!

What’s in a Groove?

It’s the feeling you get from hearing music that makes you want to dance, the break in a revolving and evolving drum beat, even a familiar routine that puts you “in the groove.” Of the many definitions one is a reference to those small indentations, or grooves, on a vinyl record that, when it spins, give the needle a track to run on and produce a musical groove. Jazz musicians’ use of the term refers to hearing one musician’s seemingly effortless playing, and can be heard in the context of “that cat’s deep in the groove.” This is itself a reference to listening to records and the needle’s ability to dig even further into the vinyl at that moment in time.

The Commodores. “Movin’ On.” 1975. Photo by the author. 13 April, 2012. JPEG file.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can also see grooves expressed in the rhythmic patterns of visual art. This happened to me on a Friday morning at SAM as I explored the collection of Australian & Oceanic Art in SAM’s Theiline Pigott McCone Gallery. I wasn’t searching for grooves in particular, but looking closely at the elongated hollow log coffins in the Aboriginal Art collection and seeing the striated line work carefully drawn in steady rhythmic cadences I suddenly thought of the grooves both musical and pressed into vinyl records across the museum in the Listening Room’s record archive.

Hollow log coffins, dupun, from central and eastern Arnhemland, Australia. Photo by the author. 13 April, 2012. JPEG file.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These groups of tall Eucalyptus logs signify a place for “sorry business,” and describe how the Yolnu, native to Australia’s East and Central Arnhemland, practice remembering deceased members of their community in a very different way from ours in the West. During the ceremony bones of the deceased are placed in the logs during ritual dances known as Dupun. The log coffins have been naturally hollowed out by termites, and are then left to the elements following the ceremony. Yolnu artists cover the logs in images of the country and designs of the clan of the deceased using a brush made of long human hair.

detail of Rirratjingu Larrakitj, (clan coffin). 2003. Wanyubi Marika. Photo by author. 13 April, 2012. JPEG file.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The grooves I saw covering the log coffins, the interlocking white lines, represent “deep knowledge, sea foam and ribbons of tide.”[1] Bones are infused into the log coffins of the Yolnu to connect deceased people back into the land. I see a further connection here with Theaster Gates: The Listening Room in that both records and the hollow log coffins provide an archive of shared history on aural and visual levels. Both of these customs are contemporary works of art that create and embrace cultural memory and shared history, highlighting the ideas and values of a culture that influenced their design. The jazz in here, or what continues to lure us in, is that they undoubtedly do this with a discernable groove.

-Ryan R. Peterson, Curatorial + Community Engagement Intern 


[1] Mundine, Djon. Quote taken from the information placard relating to the Hollow Log Coffins in SAM’s Theiline Pigott McCone Gallery.

Last photo: detail of Rirratjingu Larrakitj, (clan coffin). 2003. Wanyubi Marika. Photo by author. 13 April, 2012. JPEG file.