Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that this review contains images or names of people who have since passed away.
During 2015 and 2016 the exhibition No Boundaries: Aboriginal Australian Contemporary Abstract Painting travelled to different venues in the United States. Drawn from the collection of an American couple, Debra and Dennis Scholl, the featured works were by nine senior Australian Aboriginal men. The exhibition presented the paintings of these male artists, and Indigenous Australian art more broadly, as vital examples of contemporary art conceived of on the most global scale.
Now another travelling exhibition, Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia, which is currently on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, does the same for nine female artists. Like No Boundaries, the Marking the Infinite exhibition consists of works from the Scholls’ collection. This time around, however, roughly half of these were commissioned directly from the artists, and many of the pieces are on a larger scale than the artists had previously executed. The results are striking.
Both exhibitions were organised by William L. Fox, director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, and Henry F. Skerritt, an Australian art historian who is the curator of the Indigenous Arts of Australia at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia. The title of the current show references a theme that unites the included artworks: that human mark-making can at one and the same time conjure an intense palpability of place and address the universal. As Skerritt observes in the opening essay of the informative accompanying catalogue, ‘over the past three decades, women artists from Aboriginal Australia have provided some of the most compelling and prescient examples of this type of world-picturing’.
The Phillips version of Marking the Infinite was arranged by Klaus Ottmann, the museum’s Deputy Director for Curatorial and Academic Affairs, and the installation frames this thematic connection well. Wall panels contextualise the works in relation to ancient Aboriginal Australian traditions and to global contemporary society (though more explanations of such complex cultural concepts as the Dreaming and songlines would have been helpful). Ottmann’s decision to present the works on walls of various colours, in largely warm, earthy hues, was particularly inspired, for it lends the show a grounded quietness, recalling the colours of the remote Australian landscapes where the women live and work. Against this unifying physical and thematic background, each artist’s distinct formal inventiveness lends the exhibition an exhilarating aesthetic liveliness.