Culture- ART FEATURE- Modern dreaming: Eye-opening Aboriginal art

It never fails. Every time I write about the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, someone asks me, "Where's that?" After explaining how to reach the museum's Pantops location (turn right after the Credit Union and before Peter Jefferson Place), I often hear, "Oh, I thought that was somebody's house..."

Well, location-challenged friends, un-furrow your art-loving brows because for one more week you can view "New Dreams for Old: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kluge-Ruhe Collection" at the easy-to-find, suitably institutional-looking University of Virginia Art Museum. 

Demonstrating how Aboriginal artists have adapted traditional forms to incorporate modern materials and respond to the demands of a global fine art market, the show offers something of a Kluge-Ruhe "greatest hits" compilation. The 14 dazzling works, from different regions of Australia's Northwest Territory, range from traditional crosshatched ochre compositions— including three sculptures replicating "hollow log coffins"—to neo-pointillist dot paintings in acrylic on canvas.

A momentary digression: while driving to the show on Sunday, I heard an interview with poet Daniel Pravda, who read "Ketch-down" (forgive any misspelling; it was radio), a poem about cultural biases and presumptions. It began "The sky isn't blue if you're colorblind."

Pravda's words stayed with me as I looked at the works in "New Dreams for Old." To Western eyes, they appear to be stunning modern abstracts. But for Aborigines, they represent landscapes, practices, and stories from the sacred Aboriginal cosmology, the Dreaming. What to late painter Emily Kame Kngwarreye reflected women's ceremonial body painting ("Atharte 2– Body Paint Design") or captured an aerial view of the desert ("Yam Dreaming of My Country"), to my un-acculturated eyes seem pulsing examples of Abstract Impressionism. 

The sky may not be blue if you're colorblind, but it's nevertheless beautiful and awe-inspiring. Without knowing the ancestral meaning of Lofty Bardayal Nadjamarrek's ochre-on-paper painting, "Yam People Dreaming," viewers can still appreciate the artist's powerful use of negative and positive space, dynamic composition, and figural interplay of color and pattern. 

Fortunately, the thoughtful presentation of "New Dreams for Old" offers viewers exposure to both worlds. With teal-painted walls bringing the works' earth tones to life, the show's concise signage contextualizes each piece with a brief explanation and a relevant photo, without distracting from the visual immediacy of the work.

Ideally, "New Dreams for Old" will lead visitors to venture to its source, the Kluge-Ruhe Collection– a hidden-away location well worth the hunt.

"New Dreams for Old: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kluge-Ruhe Collection" is on view at the University of Virginia Art Museum through December 21. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.


1 comment

I only wish I lived closer. I just saw an Emily this past week in Los Angeles, but its too few and far between. When will more galleries and institutions begin to have the guts to share this work with the p[ublic which is largely unaware of its style, tradition and beauty?