George Tjungurrayi c.1943

Top 200 Australian Aboriginal Artists Special Feature

George Tjungurrayi
George Tjungurrayi, Tingari (2001). Courtesy Aboriginal Art Directory Gallery

Country: Western Desert, Gibson Desert
Language: Pintupi
Community: Papunya, Kiwirrkura
Works Offered/Sold at Auction: 63/40
Total Sales at Auction to 2009: AUD$472,681.00
Highest result at Auction to 2009: AUD$60,000.00
Rank amongst Living Artists: 15
Rank amongst all artists of the movement: 53

George Tjungurrayi c.1943

George (Hairbrush) Tjungurrayi began painting amongst the second generation of western desert artists and exhibited prominently and more frequently from the early 1990’s. His first solo exhibition was held in 1997 at Utopia Art, Sydney.

Tjungurrayi’s growing success from this time was due in part to the growing reputation of Aboriginal art internationally. He emerged as an artist of renown just as the contemporary art market was showing a distinct preference for painterliness and abstraction.

His works became increasingly distinguishable from the mid 1990’s for their movement away from the distinctive western desert doted in-fill and an emphasis on the bold linear qualities of early Pintupi paintings, thereby imparting a more striking minimal sensibility. Starting with simple designs that mark the features of his country such as sand hills, waterholes or dreaming sites, Tjungurrayi takes flight within his own artistic process. His work becomes less representative of a particular Dreaming and in doing so, like abstract art of the European tradition, explores the concept of Dreaming itself or even more so, the sense of Dreaming and the energy or awareness it arouses.

He experiments by mixing a limited combination of colours to produce different optical effects, sometimes bold contrasting stripes and at other times, gentle undulating harmonies. His connection to country is felt in the powerful sense of vibrancy that emanates from his works. As he reworks the surface and at times, changes colour on one brush to effect silvery shadows that flicker alongside his long, fluid, painterly brushstrokes, the canvas seems to pulsate or shimmer. The imperative of his Dreaming springs from his artistic expressiveness, breaking through the constraints of tradition and its culturally specific focus.

In creating works like this in what has been described as a ‘modern’ style, George Tjungurrayi was seen as shifting the ‘classic’ Pintupi iconographic lexicon out of its ethnographic context and aligning it more closely with that of op-art and other contemporary international art movements as exemplified by artists such as Bridget Riley, and Victor Vasarely.

His departure from iconographic ceremonial depictions in the early 1990’s can be seen as part of a larger movement amongst a small band of senior male artists, at a time when several were largely abandoning the Papunya Tula company and painting increasingly for independent art dealers.

Tjungurrayi himself continued to paint the majority of his works for the company, and while the market has readily accepted non-art centre paintings by Tjungurrayi and his contemporaries, especially Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Willy Tjungurrayi and Mick Namarari, collectors continue to pay a premium for those with Papunya Tula provenance.

It has been noted by many commentators that paintings by all of these artists became informed principally by the physical act of material expression rather than being fundamentally motivated by the stories they told. Sometimes in the history of an art movement such breaks with tradition can seem at first to be transgressive but in George’s case his creative trajectory chimed perfectly with public sensibility. The great success of Emily Kngwarreye’s work confirmed the market’s demand for painterliness and George’s paintings showed both the sought after degree of abstraction as well as his own individuality of expression. The earlier phase of direct articulation of symbols and designs based on ceremony had provided the foundational starting point but the booming national and international interest was hungry for the leading edge.

The work depicted relates to Mamultjulkulnga an important Tingari Dreaming site. Enclosed within the mimetic grid are waterholes, claypans and other important sites in the vicinity of Lake McKay. This relatively large work measuring 214 x 156 cm. has been executed in a complimentary palette and tight conventional style.

George Tjungurrayi’s has a healthy 63% clearance rate at auction with an average price across all works and sizes of $11,817. Eight of his ten highest prices to date have been for Papunya Tula provenanced works created between 1997 and 2002. Of these half were painted prior to 1999. Two works created for independent dealers and measuring over 3.5m in length sold for $43,200 and $32, 400, his second and fifth highest sales. Amongst the many major galleries that hold his works are the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie in Paris, and the National Gallery of Victoria.

This review is by Adrian Newstead, a leading Aboriginal art consultant.

As part of this informative series, Adrian profiles a selection of Australia's 200 highest selling and most successful living and deceased Aboriginal artists. Each profile contains the artist's primary and secondary market results. They have been written to assist collectors in learning more about the artists behind the paintings, and the place of each artist in the history of the development of specific regional styles.

Adrian Newstead is the owner of Cooee Gallery in Bondi, Sydney. Statistics supplied by the AASD (Australian Art Sales Digest) which ranks artists according to performance indicators relating to secondary market sales.

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