George Tjungurrayi

In an industrial warehouse in Sydney's Alexandria, a slice of the Western Desert radiates and shimmers off an unstretched canvas in the centre of the room. It’s a seductive, optical ballet that characterises the work of Indigenous painter George Tjungurrayi. But the swimming, shifting forms that mesmerise are only one part of the magic to be discovered here.

Tjungurrayi is a Pintupi man from the Western Desert, around six and a half hours west of Alice Springs. Though he lives and works in Kintore, the place he associates with most is Wilkinkarra; an enormous, arid salt lake surrounded by rolling sand hills and vast desert flats. Wilkinkarra is an important site for many Pintupi men and women, and plays a central role in the Dreaming stories associated with the area.

The painters who associate with Wilkinkarra each establish their own way of portraying these tales. Just as there are myriad interpretations of ‘The Last Supper’, so too are there countless variations of the Pintupi stories, all painted with an individual hand, told with a nuanced voice. Tjungurrayi’s is certainly a voice that resounds.

Tjungurrayi was a young man in the early 1970s, when the iconic Papunya Tula movement was just beginning. Cutting his teeth in a school of seminal painters, the artist has, throughout his four-decade practice, developed a distinct painting language that stands quite separate from his peers. At its most broad, the dominant element of the Pintupi painting is the concentric circle or square, symbolising a locus or place. There are ancestors, known as Tingari, and stories associated with each locus, and each locus is connected to the next in a complex, yet entirely logical system. This system becomes the basis of knowledge sharing for the Pintupi.

The artist’s early works were centred around these basic elements, painted in a dotted style typical of the era. He’d often paint figuratively too; an actual snake, with beady eyes and darting tongue, filling the canvas. But in the 1990s, something changed. The dotted lines and snakes gave way to pared-back, linear compositions that began to melt and shift across the picture plane. ‘In the mid-1990s, a single work – Untitled (1997) caught my eye,’ recalls Christopher Hodges, director of Utopia Art Sydney. ‘It was a typical composition, but painted in single lines, in a colour scheme that had power and identity.’

Tjungurrayi too knew he was onto something. This work was quickly joined by others with the same pulse, the same power and electricity. They were exhibited in Tjungurrayi’s first solo show at Utopia Art Sydney in 1997, which Hodges describes as ‘startling’. The linear works marked a remarkable divergence in Indigenous painting at the time. ‘It was a ground-breaking moment,’ says Hodges. ‘George had found his own voice and it was unlike anything he, or anyone else, had done before.’ Two decades on, Tjungurrayi has not only mastered this utterly unique visual language, he continues to investigate it, to push the boundaries of what can be achieved on the canvas.

His paintings sit playfully between abstraction and representation; between self and place. They speak to the stories of the Tingari through which the artist understands the world, at the same time echoing the rippling surface of Wilkinkarra, the undulating heat of sun on desert, the rolling formations of a sand dune … and one is not complete without the other.

This unique visual language – and insatiable curiosity to push its limits – has placed Tjungurrayi’s work firmly within the canon of Australian art. His inclusion in the 21st Biennale of Sydney is testament to his deep and profound influence on contemporary practice.

‘George Tjungurrayi came to my attention during my research and exploration of the idea of abstraction,’ says Biennale Artistic Director Mami Kataoka. ‘While Aboriginal paintings have sometimes been articulated in the context of Western abstract expressionism, I consider that the artists have their own ways of depicting reality, including the invisible presences that are a part of our world. Tjungurrayi’s practice presents essential experiences of his own space, both visually and physically, transcending the simple dichotomy of abstraction or figuration.’

The Biennale selection offers shining examples of the different ways Tjungurrayi investigates these visual and physical spaces. A large scale purple and mauve work, Untitled (2017), beautifully demonstrates Tjungurrayi’s tight linear control. In the even larger Untitled (2015), the artist enjoys a vast spread of the plane, his orange and black linear forms filling the picture space. The squares of Tingari ancestors have almost completely merged here, giving way to interlocking vortices of tantalising complexity. In Untitled (2016), Tjungurrayi’s sweeping linear forms take centre stage. Whirling loops and arches rise and recede, dancing together with an optical shift that makes your eye pop. The labyrinthian forms evoke a wonderful feeling of movement through time and space; you can almost see those giant snakes, tongues and all, undulating through it all.

In the square work Untitled (2016) Tjungurrayi explores a different idea altogether. The Tingari circles and squares disappear completely, giving way to line work that kicks up at the sides of the canvas. This is Tjungurrayi’s representation of a spear flying through the air, its inevitable capture by the wind. The resulting works are almost visceral in their execution; we not only see the vibrations of the spear rippling across the picture plane, we can feel its thrum cutting the air as it passes.

The ease through which Tjungurrayi shifts back and forward between these different modes of storytelling – investigating and innovating with every new canvas – speaks of an artist with conviction. He’s one who not only works through the ways he is able to represent the world around him, but also to question it. With every canvas, he activates the picture plane to the point where we are confronted by something new, something captivating. Tjungurrayi’s paintings create for us true moments of aesthetic arrest. They are moments told in a voice that seduces and overwhelms, obliging us to not only see and hear, but to listen, to look deeper and ultimately take account.

EXHIBITION
Superposition: Equilibrium & Engagement
21st Biennale of Sydney
16 March – 11 June, 2018
Various locations

Courtesy the artist and Utopia Art