“Cooper & Marawili” review by Laura Fisher

Posted by on Mar 17, 2010 in Review | No Comments

17 March – 17 April 2010  Annandale Galleries, 110 Trafalgar Street, Annandale, Sydney   annandalegalleries.com.au 

Annandale Galleries’ recent showing of Charles Cooper’s “Peak Oil Paintings” and a series of barks and ceremonial  poles by Yolngu sisters Yalmakany and Gurrundul Marawili was  one of those rare exhibitions that made possible a stimulating  conversation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artworks.  Yalmakany and Gurrundul work from Buku-Larrngay Mulka Art  Centre in Yirrkala, where their brother Djambawa Marawili and  Gurrundul’s husband Wanyubi Marika have set a precedent for  remarkable innovation in recent years. Their works in this show for the most part depict Gurrtjpi, the stingray which is hunted  at Blue Mud Bay and a Madarrpa clan totem. Gurrtjpi forged a  creation path at Bäniyala, a site adjacent to Blue Mud Bay. He  journeyed into the bush along the route of a tidal creek, where  he bit into the land to create several billabongs, before travelling  out to the point Lulumu to become a white rock surrounded by  tidal flows.

Cooper’s works depict roadway markings such as pedestrian  crossings and speed humps. They continue a longstanding  interest in geometric painting and the signs and symbols through  which we communicate and organise our spaces. The Marawili  sisters no doubt know little or nothing of Cooper’s work, but  Cooper is familiar with and admiring of Yirrkala barks as well as  other types of Aboriginal art. Indeed, Aboriginal art’s emergence  in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with a shift away from  conventional, front-on landscape painting in Cooper’s practice. Aboriginal art resonated with his interest in symbology and the  effects achieved by different types of mark-making. Furthermore,  as the son of a map-maker he was predisposed to appreciate  topographical methods of representing the environment.  All the works in this show are iconoclastic with respect to the  western canonical lynchpin of the rectangular canvas, and  importantly their supports are intrinsic to the impact of the  imagery that adorns them. In the case of Gurrundul’s and  Yalmakany’s works, the irregularities in the bark echo the watery  undulations rendered on the bark’s surface. With the exception  of two orb-shaped pieces, Coopers’ works are painted on  canvases that have been stretched over irregular quadrilateral  frames, as well as on similarly shaped wood panels taken from a  desk. Their shapes authenticate the gentle convexes and acute,  tilting perspectives that Cooper has achieved through pictorial  techniques, and one can’t help checking that the works are not  in fact three-dimensional.

In the Gurrtjpi paintings, bands of hatched line-work and stripes of  dotting are overlayed in plait-like formation. They describe the ripples  of water that radiate from Gurrtjpi as he glides through the water  and furrows the land on his creation path, as well as the tides that  surge around his resting place. In Yalmakany’s work the stingray  form is subtly delineated amidst the wavy striations, and sometimes  obscured by the reflected sunlight that marks the water’s surface.  Variations in colour and pattern, and a favouring of multiple forms  bring a more distinguished figure/ground relationship to Gurrundul’s  compositions, in which trails of bubbles appear to slide over  Gurrtjpi’s back.

Unlike the Futurists who sought to evoke movement by attending  to the activity of the subject, Cooper captures the slanting shapes  that we glimpse as we rush through urban environments. Like  scaled-up reproductions of innocuous cut-outs from magazine car advertisements, they create the sense that we are racing at  vertiginous angles through surreal urban scenes. The roughened  and cracked surfaces of road markings are conveyed by Cooper’s  careful hatching of the painted surface while wet, his scraping of  white into grey, bus-lane red into white. Flecks of orange and purple  emerge from the ground, and a thin, dark glaze deepens the tones.  Up close, a lively textured field is created, but from afar we see a  uniformly worn and gravely patch of road.

The work of all three artists is characterised by a strong conceptual  approach to the subject which is reflected in their precise  workmanship and evocation of a many-layered landscape.  Coopers’ works invite us to experience our mundane surroundings  with fresh eyes, but they also carry a playful injunction that should  inform our interpretation of Yalmakany’s and Gurrundul’s paintings.  We are accustomed to seeing Aboriginal art as exotic: as being  dense with symbols and iconography that must be decoded, and  this habit positions it as being far removed from what western,  secular beings create. The message in Cooper’s paintings is that  we are all surrounded by and responsive to signs and symbols that  are contingent upon a particular world view. The complementarities  between these artists’ works encourage us to reach past the  romance and trepidation that comes with apprehending cultural  difference. We are asked simply to admire three artists who have  portrayed environments that are richly invested with meaning, and  to identify, even if briefly, with their world views.


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01 Charles Cooper, Brierly, 2010, oil on linen canvas, 332 x 209cm
02 Gurrundul Marawili, Gurrutjpi , 2009, ochre on bark, 97 x75cm
03 Yalmakany Marawili, Gurrtjpi , 2009, ochre on bark, 143 x 46cm
Courtesy the artists and Annandale Galleries