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Interest Grows in Aboriginal Art

THE American art world is beginning to see dots and circles before its eyes. Perhaps growing from an interest in all things Australian - an interest fueled by last year's Aussie bicentennial, two ``Crocodile Dundee'' films, and such bestselling novels from down under as Robert Hughes's ``Fatal Shore'' - new excitement has been generated by the exhibition and sale in the United States of Aboriginal art.

The dot-and-circle symbol system used in many of the Aboriginal paintings - whether acrylics on canvas or traditional bark paintings bark - embraces 40,000 years of mythology, history, religion, and social customs. Aboriginal painting represents the the oldest continuous visual-art tradition on Earth, dating back to twice the age of the cave paintings in Lascaux, France.

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The added dimension of an abstract imagery that is aesthetically compelling but also sacred - even secret - has piqued interest among buyers and viewers, alike, who are attracted to deeper ideas of what art is about.

``This is a way to look at the very dawn of art - at how man put it to use in a social context as a sort of proto-hieroglyphics,'' says Richard Kelton, a Los Angeles collector whose nearly 80 pieces add up to the largest private collection in this countryt. Mr. Kelton has helped organize two major shows here since 1980 and has taught courses on Aborignal art. ``You can begin to learn about what art was at its very genesis,'' he adds.

Page Matheson, a student at the University of Chicago, where the nation's first major national tour of Aboriginal art attracted viewers who knew little about Aboriginal culture, says, ``I am drawn to the strong social and symbolic role that makes their art function differently than ours in the Western world.''

Nancy Munn, an Aboriginal expert at the University of Chicago, says, ``This is the first time most Americans have had a chance to witness this vast tradition.''

The dots and circles are part of a highly detailed visual language that is used by the painters to create personal or tribal narratives. The Aboriginese also use them to communicate densely layered social codes and complex manifestations of an Aboriginal process known as ``dreamtime,'' in which the artist is said to commune with his ancestors, the land, the people, and the animals of his native environment and then records his communications visually.

Some collectors are investing large sums in Aboriginal art. One ``sand painting'' recently sold for $150,000 in New York. Other collectors are waiting until the market impact of Aboriginal paitings can be more fully analyzed.

But evidence that interest has skyrocketed comes from many directions.

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The first, large-scale Aboriginal art show to tour the US, an exhibition entitled ``Dreamings,'' attracted the largest audience in the 30-year history of the Asia Society Gallery in New York. Crowds at the exhibition's Chicago stop made it the top show in 15 years there, according to Jeff Abt, director of the Smart Gallery.

Other short-term exhibits of Aboriginal art are popping up in cities from New York to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Attendance at related panels, lectures, and seminars has incidated passionate interest in the subject, say museum officials.

``Consciousness is being raised and education begun,'' says Kate Flynn, an Australian collector and dealer living in New York. Ms. Flynn is trying to get financial backing for an all-Aboriginal gallery there. She mentions two recent month-long exhibitions that attracted a lot of interest. A third is now underway at the John Weber Gallery in Soho.

``Americans have just discovered the appeal of Aboriginal art, and demand for it is so phenomenal I can't believe it,'' says Dorothy Bennett, an Australian who has spent the last 30 years collecting Aboriginal art and trying to generate interest in it among the public. She also wants to interest Aborigines in preserving their traditional art forms so they don't die out as the artists dwindle.

Of the 100,000 Aborigines still living in Australia, some 35 to 50 are considered topnotch artists. Another 100 or so have developed an interest in art and are developing their work, according to Flynn.

Though use of the modern acrylic medium is not in danger of disappearing, she and others say, the older tradition of bark painting could. Over the last decade, the number of practicing bark painters has declined from 35 to seven, according to Ms. Bennett. ``The young are not interested in carrying on the tradition,'' she laments.

Aboriginal art ``raises painful questions about the irreversible drainage from our own culture of spirituality, awe, and connection to nature,'' wrote Time magazine's Robert Hughes in a review of ``Dreamings.'' ``Tribal art is never free and does not want to be. The ancestors do not give one drop of guinea spit for `creativity.''' It is the special meanings and ceremonial uses associated with Aboriginal art that has caused something of a flutter in its buying and selling.

``Art patrons are uncomfortable with having something on their wall they can't explain to their peers,'' says Gordon Marks, a San Francisco gallery owner. Though information about the Aboriginal mode of painting is available, the precise symbolism is protected by tribal custom and law. With the recent upsurge in prices, there is increasing concern about the ``borrowing'' of tribal symbols and patterns.

``The Aborigines are beginning to face questions of copyright infringement and how to make legal concepts stick,'' says Professor Fred Myers, an anthropologist at Columbia University.

Beginning in 1971, some Aboriginal artists started painting on canvas rather than on rocks, bark, or sand so that their work could be preserved. That movement has gained momentum over the years. Gradually, too, a handful of collectors began to bring Aboriginal art to the attention of a wider public.

Now on view here in Los Angeles before embarking on an international tour, ``Dreamings'' is being coordinated with a companion exhibition of Aboriginal art at the city's Caz gallery. When it opened its doors last October, Caz was the only US gallery specializing in Aboriginal art. Now the Gordon Marks Gallery in San Francisco also specializes in it. Both Mr. Marks and Caz owner Carol Lopes note that the keen interest in Aboriginal art is tempered by some wariness and confusion.

``There is a very steep learning curve,'' says Marks. ``A buyer will come back many times, first to ask questions about the various tribes and symbols, next to buy a book, then to attend a reception where others are interested. Many are already collectors of American and European art and wonder if this is the coming wave.''

The wariness arises partly from the lack of a stable pricing system, a relative paucity of scholars who understand the symbolism of the paintings, and concern about the numbers of Aborigines willing to preserve and extend their artistic heritage.

``The young are jumping into the act in droves, which means there will always be work to be had,'' predicts Lopes. ``But whether or not the really refined work of the elders will continue is not yet settled.''

There is also concern about the Aborigines' motives in going commercial with their sacred iconography, though many works are never sold and others are never even shown.

``They've learned what their art is worth and want a decent, reasonable return,'' says Peter Sutton, head of the division of anthropology at the South Australian Museum. ``Accumulating wealth doesn't mean anything to them. Yet there is something disturbing about the commercial aspect, if it gets too mindless.''

Though the current exhibition has received generally high marks from critics, its reception in Los Angeles has been mixed.

``I think the standing ovation for `Dreamings' is prompted less by reverence for Aboriginal societies than by a throbbing nostalgia for the modern West,'' wrote a critic in the Herald Examiner.

But whatever critics think of the art, there is no doubt that it has launched an educational process. The catalogue for the show has been called the best short introduction to the Aboriginal world view now in print.

``Dreamings could be described as a refresher course in the spiritual roots of art,'' said the Los Angeles Times. ``Roots that are being trampled by speculators stampeding to the cash register as they dither on about commerce and acquisition.''

``Dreamings'' continues at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles until Aug. 5.

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