CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Dynamism down under: The riveting Lockhart River Art Gang


This winter may be paltry in terms of snowfall, but it has dished out plenty of sullen, gray days like so many bowls of cold gruel. Last Saturday morning, for instance, the sky was drab as I drove to see the Klug-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection's current exhibition, "Our Way: Contemporary Aboriginal Art from Lockhart River." 

Walking through the Kluge-Ruhe's front door, though, I experienced an electrifying jolt of energy. 

Samantha Hobson's abstract acrylic painting, "Bust ‘Im Up Again," confronts visitors with a barrage of churning blues, pinks, and purples, intensified with splashes of red, all exploding across a canvas traversed by a thin thread of gold. Meant to represent violence within the Lockhart River Aboriginal community, the dynamism of Hobson's painting provides a good introduction to the youth-driven artistic directions the Lockhart River Art Gang are advancing.

The movement grew out of a government-sponsored program to provide vocational training to young people in the Lockhart River settlement in remote northeastern Australia. Artists from around the country traveled to the remote area to teach Aboriginal youths modern printmaking and painting techniques.

The work in the current show reflects how the Lockhart River Art Gang, whose members are all under 30, made the techniques their own, creating primarily abstract works that explore issues of cultural identity, family, landscape, and mythic stories particular to their community.

"Our way" is composed of three parts. "Sandbeach Country" features pieces that capture the geo-cultural context in which the Lockhart River artists work. "The Art Gang" presents prints that developed out of the government program. The largest section, "Painting Solo," showcases five stellar members of the Lockhart River Art Gang who have achieved recognition in the mainstream art world. 

Of the five, Rosella Namok, Fiona Omeenyo, and Samantha Hobson stand out for their staggeringly beautiful, dynamic canvases. Namok's environmentally focused works feature subtle color variations and incorporate linear elements, sometimes created by the artist's dragging her fingers through surface paint to underlying areas. 

Omeenyo examines family relationships in compositions peopled by stylistically abstract figures. The combination of bold colors and energized technique in her "Mother and Child" rivets viewers. Meanwhile, Hobson's large paintings, often swirling with eye-popping colors, deal with current events and feel as if they are in a perpetual state of spontaneous combustion. 

Each of these artists offers a distinctive aesthetic, but their shared dynamism infuses "Our World" with an exhilarating force guaranteed to shake you out of your winter doldrums.

"Our Way: Contemporary Work from Lockhart River," is on view at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection through March 15. 400 Worrell Dr. (Pantops). 244-0234. A satellite show of work from this traveling exhibition is on view in Newcomb Hall at the University of Virginia.