Part 2: Important Aboriginal Art
26 November 2014


(c.1920 - 2008)

synthetic polymer paint on linen

121.0 x 121.0 cm

inscribed verso: artist's name, title, size and Watiyawanu Artists of Amunturrungu cat. 3-0730

$15,000 - 20,000
Sold for $21,600 (inc. BP) in Auction 37 - 26 November 2014, Melbourne

Watiyawanu Artists of Amunturrungu, Mount Liebig
Japingka Gallery, Perth
Private collection, Melbourne

Catalogue text

The small body of work produced over the space of a few intense years by senior Watiyawanu artist Bill Whiskey is becoming increasingly prized. With a pictorial focus so honed and precise as to be minimalist, yet with the unique auric vision of a shaman, he intended each painting as a ritual invocation of the power and beauty of the Pirupa Akla (Olgas) area - his birthplace in the early 1920s. Though he utilized the iconic language of dots and roundels that were staples of Western Desert art, he pushed into a new kind of open or virtual visual space in which the pictorial elements were allowed to float, miasmically hover and circulate. The effect was a unique pictorial 'buoyancy' - what Australian abstractionist Roger Kemp, in another but also intensely personal context, called 'liftoff'. Such a unique quality is highly pronounced in the current work. The three prominent roundels, denoting key landforms of the Olgas, seem uncontained by the canvas frame. Rather, in the manner of swarming birds, they migrate to gather at one side, thus suggesting that their potential for migratory motion is not, or rather, never finally accomplished. The effect of this 'unfastening' of placement or location at once proposes their presence not as literal landforms, but as mystic or numinously-charged bodies whilst suggesting that the landscape in which they dwell is an unfurling realm, one extending into infinity in every direction. The exact symmetry posed by the square canvas frame is thus rendered not as container, but as square lens opening to another realm: one seen from an extreme and untrammeled elevation. Here, in short, is a pictorial space radically different from the mathematically gridded Cartesian rigors of Western perspectivalism that has dominated, or perhaps haunted Western art since the time of Giotto and the demise of magical realism that required even angels to fold their wings and fall to earth.

Without understanding the importance of Bill Whiskey's role as ceremonial healer (Ngangkari) - one renowned for leaving his body at night to fly over the landscape gathering portents with which to return in the morning - we can't really understand this unique evocation of country as fluidly-dynamic potentiality. Nor can we begin to approach the scale and operation of Aboriginal notions of identity outside, or beyond the confines of 'scientific' cartographic imperialism.

Closer inspection of the delicately nuanced 'surface' of this finely handled painting itself invites a melting away of any sensation of solid mass. Indeed, the notion of a flat pictorial surface is dispersed into a kind of shimmering, brilliantly yet subtly coloured optical atomism, far removed from the systematic infill dotting of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and other famous desert painters. What is revealed instead is an intricate lacery or mesh of almost invisible walking tracks together with patches or swarms of white dots that represent the white stones, that themselves are the dazzling feathers of the white cockatoo scattered during its epic totemic battle with the crow. That two corners of the painting are hugged by suddenly carefully-aligned shorthand notation for other key features of the white ancestral cockatoo story invites us to speculate upon how Whiskey's over-riding enthusiasm to paint had, at least at some juncture, to (perhaps comically) confront the physical limits of the canvas. Here, finally was a boundary not just alien but also resistant to the unfurling travels of dreamers and magic men.