Unlikely resonances: TarraWarra Museum of Art – Dan Rule

Kate Beynon, An-Li: A Chinese Ghost Tale, installation view TarraWarra Museum of Art 2015. Photo: Andrew Curtis

Kate Beynon, An-Li: A Chinese Ghost Tale, installation view TarraWarra Museum of Art 2015. Photo: Andrew Curtis

Occupying the two main spaces at TarraWarra Museum of Art, this pair of new exhibitions shares some unlikely resonances. Indeed, both Kate Beynon’s An-Li: A Chinese Ghost Tale and Earth and Sky: John Mawurndjul and Gulumbu Yunupingu share connections to ancestral mythologies, histories and universal themes of the precariousness of life.

At a glance, they couldn’t be further removed, either in terms of mode or form. Beynon’s watercolour and acrylic paintings are almost illustrative in their devices, teasing out narrative strands from the ancient Chinese myth of An-Li, who traverses both living and spiritual worlds. Her paintings are elegantly rendered and richly colourful; her watercolour and gouache works are awash with fluid strokes, soft tones and subtle flourishes, where her acrylics feature bold, flat sections of colour, impish characterisation and fine, almost finicky details.

Kate Beynon, Masked Ogre dancers, 2014-15 (detail), watercolour, gouache and pencil on cotton rag, 77 x 56 cm. Courtesy the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne

Kate Beynon, Masked Ogre dancers, 2014-15 (detail), watercolour, gouache and pencil on cotton rag, 77 x 56 cm. Courtesy the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne

Many of the works deal with the supernatural, with An-Li transcending the boundaries between living and dead. In Graveyard scene/the beauty and sadness of bones, we witness him in the visage of a clothed skeleton, grasping a human heart as he gazes over the woman who grieves his passing. A scattering of branches, skeletal spirits, gravestones, Buddhist offerings and symbology frame the at once elegiac and vibrant scene. Another striking work, Masks of the Ogre dancers, comprises a grid of playfully creepy, luridly colourful masks that shift between human and animal form, rendered against an inky black backdrop. Like much of Beynon’s work, they are both devilish and almost cute. A suite of video works – basic, stilted animations of the existing paintings in the exhibition – play out to an enigmatic soundtrack in an adjoining space, joining a constellation of soft sculptures as a perhaps unnecessary extension to the paintings.

Earth and Sky – which presents an astute edit of the bark painting practices of senior Arnhem Land artist John Mawurndjul and the late Gulumbu Yunupingu – is a very different exhibition, but continuities resonate. Mawurndjul’s paintings take a fastidious but fluid form, as he applies fine, incredibly intricate crosshatches to create underlying fields of texture to vertical swathes of bark, creating the effect of fluidity and movement. The compositions are segmented with hard lines and circular forms (which one might guess are water holes), suggesting fixed points in a landscape defined by movement, dynamism and migration.

John Mawurndjul and Gulumbu Yunupingu: Earth and Sky. Installation view TarraWarra Museum of Art 2015. Photo: Andrew Curtis

Gulumbu Yunupingu, Garak, The Universe, 2008, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark, 137 x 77 cm Purchased 2009, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © Estate of the artist, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala

Yunupingu’s works, also rendered on chiefly vertical plains of bark, are gorgeous in their changeability. While Mawurndjul’s works take in the human and spiritual relationship to the land, Yunupingu’s paintings gaze upward. Her highly textural compositions glimmer with a sea of diminutive dots and intersecting strokes, representing Ganyu (stars) and Garak (universe). The paintings are striking for their depth and dynamism; they shift and change with our proximity and distance.

Like Mawurndjul – and Beynon for that matter – Yunupingu’s works suggest connectedness amid different places, states and worlds. We are all tiny dots in a much larger constellation – mere moments, fragments amidst place, history and millennia.

Kate Beynon: An-Li: A Chinese Ghost Tale | Earth and Sky: John Mawurndjul and Gulumbu Yunupingu, Tues to Sun 11am–5pm, until June 8 2015; TarraWarra Museum of Art, 311 Healesville-Yarra Glen Road, Healesville, Victoria, (03) 5957 3100, twma.com.au