More than art: Kluge-Ruhe works do double-duty

Here’s a novel thing about Charlottesville: We actually have a moderately sized gallery devoted entirely to Aboriginal artwork. It’s true. If you’re willing to brave car-dealership hill– Route 250 east– you can find the Kluge-Ruhe (kloo-gie roo) gallery at the end of Peter Jefferson Place. It’s not far at all— take a right just past the DMV. 
The gallery is just the sort of thing locals off-handedly bring up when their out-of-town acquaintances want to know what makes this place special (down the list, of course, from Monticello and assorted Jeffersoniana).
The Kluge-Ruhe is more than just a handy conversational reference, however. Yes, it lacks certain shopping mall charm, and yes again, there isn’t much to buy there. But you aren’t likely to find a larger collection of tree bark paintings anywhere else.
In short, you might want to think about going sometime. And you may want to go sooner rather than later if you want to catch the gallery’s recent impressive exhibit, “Water Country.” 
Not surprisingly, water holes are pretty important things for people who live in and around deserts. This is certainly true for Aboriginals, who include water holes prominently in their mythology and subsequently, their artwork— a fair, recent sampling of which is on display at the Kluge-Ruhe.
There are undoubtedly beautiful things happening in these paintings, but what gives the work its energy is its combination of several functions, some strictly visual and others utilitarian. The paintings work on an aesthetic level, but they also double at times as charts, maps, and storytelling aides. 
David Malangi’s “Yathalamarra Waterhole” looks a little dark and foreboding at first glance. After all, the painting keeps a big black blot lined with inward-bending vertiginous white stripes at its center, pushing all the cross-hatching, earth tones, and water lilies to the far corners.
For Americans of a certain age, it may be hard not to think of the opening action sequence in Return of the Jedi, but for the artist, the painting references a specific water hole from a story his mother told him, a geographic location that also resonates with mythic energy.
Most of the paintings here include traditional colors (white, brown, tan, black) with traditional media (bark), though there are a few concessions to modernity. Some artists, for example, have traded the bark for canvas and oil paints. But even these paintings preserve a continuity of style and function that grounds them in the community and culture.   

“Water Country” runs through January 18 at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Gallery, 400 Peter Jefferson Place. 243-0234.