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Shane Pickett: 19 February 1957 – 15 January 2010

The following is an extended version of a tribute that was first published in Art Monthly Australia, Issue 227, March 2010, pp.29-30.

Shane Pickett, On the Horizon of the Dreaming Boodja 2005, National Gallery of Australia

I last saw Shane Pickett in the week before his death. Ever an industrious artist, he was busy putting the final touches on a series of delicate figurative landscape paintings intended for a solo exhibition in Melbourne. Spindly gum trees and gently undulating hills glowed with an outback haze against the white walls of his studio. In the past decade, Pickett had garnered widespread acclaim for his commanding abstract paintings, but few outside of Western Australia were aware that this was where his artistic journey first began. Flashing his famously impish smile, he quipped at the surprise that these works would elicit amidst the cosmopolitan Melbourne scene.

Although lauded as an abstractionist, Pickett never ceased to consider himself a landscape painter. In returning to figuration, he hoped to draw attention to the continuity of his concerns; to show the close connection his paintings maintained to his Nyoongar landscape. At the same time, he wanted to show just how much he had developed, to reveal the cultural, spiritual and artistic journey that underpinned his career. He titled the exhibition Djinong Djina Boodja – a Nyoongar phrase meaning ‘look at the land that I have travelled.’

It was a rare moment of retrospection from an artist whose career had been characterised by a restless forward trajectory of transformation and reinvention. After a career spanning three decades, Pickett had much to look back upon with pride. He had held at least 27 solo exhibitions and been involved in nearly 100 group shows. His works had travelled to America, Europe and Asia, and had been acquired by many of Australia’s most important collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

And yet, these were not the things that most interested Pickett. Although a proud man, he was never vainglorious and rarely spoke of his successes or achievements. When questioned, he preferred to speak on the cultural aspects of his art and career, measuring his journey not by accolades, but by his deepening knowledge of his Nyoongar heritage. For Pickett, art and life were united in an ever-expanding process of learning, in which spiritual and artistic developments were combined in a continually evolving process of creation.

A metaphor for this process can be seen in Pickett’s many representations of the moment of creation. This was the theme of his first important abstract work – Supernova 1988 – and it culminated in one of his best known paintings On the Horizon of the Dreaming Boodja 2005 (National Gallery of Australia). In the latter work [pictured above], delicate beams of light break through an abyss of white impasto, signifying “the birth of life, breaking through the warmth of eternity, bringing the beginning of the Dreaming Boodja, a place mankind calls earth.” In visualising this moment, when everything is born from the vacuum of nothingness, Pickett created a profound meditation on the nature of being. The viewer is held in suspense, literally stuck in the space between existence and non-existence, suspended forever on the horizon of being.

Shane Pickett, Three Faces of the Sun 1986, Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.

Pickett’s life and career presents a similar ontological conundrum. Like a supernova, he was an incredible creative source. Through his inspiration and influence he helped guide three decades of development and change in Indigenous art, culture and identity, particularly amongst the Nyoongar community of Western Australia. On the other hand, Pickett was very much a man of his time, with much of the resonance of his artwork and personal philosophy coming from their perfect articulation of the changing moods and attitudes of the world around him.

The son of Fred and Dorcas May Pickett, Shane Pickett was born in 1957 in the wheat-belt town of Quairading, about 170 kilometres east of Perth. Surrounded by athletic siblings but suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, Pickett gravitated to art from an early age. In 1988 he recalled, “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a pencil or brush in my hand.” The Nyoongar people had a strong artistic lineage, springing from the figurative landscape style that emerged from the Carrolup River Native Settlement in the 1940s. It was a style that Pickett quickly mastered, taking the intense colours of the Carrolup school and matching it with a rugged lyricism. After completing high-school, he moved to Perth, where in 1976 he held his first solo exhibition at the New Era Aboriginal Centre.

Much like the school of watercolour painting that evolved around Albert Namatjira and the Luthern Mission at Hermannsburg, the Carrolup style represented a very particular Indigenous response to colonialism. In an era in which assimilation remained official policy, these styles allowed a subtle communication of the significance of the Indigenous landscape, camouflaged within a palatably European medium. The spiritual and cultural underpinnings of these works remained largely unnoticed, and their subversion of Western perspective unrecognized.

By the early 1980s, as issues such as land rights and Indigenous self-determination began to gain momentum Pickett, like many Indigenous people, had begun to seek a more assertive vision of Indigenous identity. Taking the skills learnt as a landscape painter, he moved into the realm of magic realism. Again, a landmark work from the period concerned the moment of creation. Waagle – The Rainbow Serpent 1983 (Art Gallery of Western Australia), was a graphic, fantasy-style representation of the Rainbow Serpent in the act of creating the Nyoongar people. Swathed in atmospheric layers of paint, it was a lurid visualization of an epic story, and showed Pickett assertively extending himself beyond the picturesque boundaries of the Carrolup style.

Shane Pickett, Waagle – Rainbow Serpent 1983, Art Gallery of Western Australia

Pickett’s confidence in his Nyoongar cultural identity was matched with an increasing visibility in the local community. Pickett moved in a circle of supportive and ambitious young Nyoongar men, which included playwright Richard Walley, actor Ernie Dingo and artist Lance Chadd, all of whom cite him as a source of wisdom, counsel and inspiration. In 1981 Pickett produced the sets for Jack Davis’ play Kullark – The Dreamers, and he volunteered his time to many Indigenous groups including the Aboriginal Planning Group, the WA Aboriginal Artists Advisory Council and the Australia Council’s Visual Arts and Craft Committee for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts. It was around this stage that Pickett’s career began to flourish. In 1986 he was awarded the Museum and Art Galleries Award at the Third National Aboriginal Art Awards (for the work Three Faces of the Sun reproduced above) and in 1988 he was declared Western Australian Aboriginal Artist of the Year.

While his landscape and magic realist tableaus brought him great respect and admiration in Western Australia, it was his move to abstraction in the late 1990s that saw Pickett‘s recognition as an artist of truly national standing. This coincided with a long association with gallerist Diane Mossenson of Indigenart, Mossenson Galleries. At Mossenson Galleries, Pickett found the stability and encouragement to experiment, developing a unique personal style of gestural abstraction. His decade-long association with Indigenart was the most productive and successful era of his career, and saw him included in numerous important exhibitions including South West Central (Art Gallery of Western Australia, 2003) and Culture Warriors: The National Indigenous Art Triennial (National Gallery of Australia, 2007). In 2006 he was granted a retrospective at the Perth Institute for Contemporary Arts. In the same year he won the Sunshine Coast Art Award and the Joondalup Invitation Art Award, and in 2007 he was awarded the $40,000 first prize in the inaugural Drawing Together Art Award.

Pickett’s move to abstraction was driven by a desire to find deeper, more intuitive spiritual meanings in the landscape. According to Nick Tapper, “Pickett came to feel that representation of the skin and hair of the environment – its landforms, flora and fauna – missed the resonant undercurrents flowing amongst these elements.” As he matured, and his cultural knowledge increased, Pickett increasingly felt that traditional representations were incapable of expressing his deeper understanding of the landscape.

Shane Pickett, Wanyarang the Calling Season for Rain, 2006, Caloundra Regional Art Gallery.

With this knowledge, he realised, came a greater responsibility. This was something that Pickett felt strongly about – both in respecting his elders and passing his knowledge to a younger generation of Nyoongar people. Shortly before his death, he confided that his proudest achievement was his participation in the monumental Ngallak Koort Boodja (Our Heartland) canvas produced on behalf of the Nyoongar elders for the 2006 Perth International Arts Festival. Pickett took great pride and pleasure in the extensive consultation with both the community and elders of the Nyoongar nations that occurred before commencing work on the monumental piece. He saw the project as being an important galvanising moment in the Nyoongar community, and felt that it was imperative that it correctly reflected the teachings and values of his elders.

Between 1980 and 1983, Pickett completed a Diploma in Fine Arts at the Claremont School of Fine Arts in Western Australia. Although he valued the technical skills he had learnt there, Pickett often lamented the lack of Indigenous teachers. He sought to redress this imbalance, offering his services in numerous community workshops, primary and secondary colleges, along with teaching Aboriginal prisoners at Canningvale Prison. An important role model in his community, he dedicated considerable time to assisting with troubled or disaffected youth, guiding them quietly and calmly with his gently spoken cultural teachings.

Pickett was also influential for young Nyoongar painters. Between 1996 and 2003, he worked as a lecturer at TAFE in Midland and Bunbury, helping to develop the Diploma of Aboriginal Visual Arts course. Pickett’s influence and stewardship led to the widespread adoption of his style amongst a younger generation of artists. The success of his abstractions inaugurated a new school of Nyoongar painting whose influence can be seen in the work of many young artists, including Ben Pushman and Troy Bennell.

At its heart, Pickett’s move to abstraction had a cross-cultural mission. From his earliest works, he saw himself as an ambassador for Nyoongar culture. Although a softly spoken, quiet advocate, Pickett was unwavering in his championing of Nyoongar cultural values. Generous with both his time and knowledge, he was a popular speaker, always willing to patiently explain the complex philosophical minutiae of Nyoongar teachings.

Shane Pickett, Wanyarang Lightning Calling 2005.

Pickett’s abstract paintings communicate these teachings intuitively to an uninitiated audience. According to Pickett, “A lot of them don’t know what they are seeing, but often they’ll have an idea. When they do know what the story is about, they get drawn in.” For Pickett, abstraction was a method for leading people to their own personal communication with the Dreaming, and through this, to a respect and understanding of Indigenous values. Perhaps this explains the popular appeal of Pickett’s work, for like Pickett, they were never judgemental, but softly guided the viewer into a dialogue with the magical world of the Dreaming. In 2007, he noted, “The Dreams do run strongly through the views of my life.” This is perhaps his lasting legacy; in Pickett’s Dreaming we find a dialogue that crosses all cultural barriers, uniting all people within his a powerful cosmology of reconciliation.

Shane Pickett died on Friday 15 January 2010 following a sudden bout of illness. He is survived by his wife Violet, his sons Roger and Trevor, and his five grandchildren.

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Shane Pickett: Kaanarn

Kaanarn: ‘There is Truth in the Landscape’

The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Shane Picket: Kaanarn at Mossenson Galleries in Perth from February 17 till March 11, 2006.

Shane Pickett, Guardians of the Good Energy Spirit, 2006

For three decades, Shane Pickett has defined himself as a painter of the landscape. “There is truth in the landscape,” he declares. “It is from the landscape that all our culture and beliefs come.” In recent years, this project has seen Pickett move from the delicate figurative landscapes of his youth, into large-scale abstract paintings of the type that have culminated in his current exhibition Kaanarn. The title of Pickett’s exhibition draws on the Nyoongar word meaning ‘true.’ Consistent with his statements, Pickett cites this move into abstraction as being part of his progress towards uncovering the illusive ‘truth’ in the landscape.

In the works I have made and the life I have lived I have been very much honest to nature. Nature is honest and I try to bring that out. My career has been a journey, expanding in scope; as I have grown in maturity, my work has become less like a photograph and has tried to explore the deeper meaning of the landscape.

I would like to begin this catalogue essay by asking the meaning of this transformation in Pickett’s work. In the history of Western art, the movement from figuration to abstraction has been a common one for many artists. Amongst Indigenous artists, however, it is a decidedly less common phenomenon. This question takes on an added pertinence when one considers Pickett singular role in inaugurating a revitalised tradition of Nyoongar abstraction as seen in the recent works of emerging artists like Troy Bennell and Ben Pushman.[1] In order to answer this question, I would first like to return to the unlikely time and place of France in 1905.

Considering Pickett’s invocation of the ‘truth’ in nature, it is difficult not to recall Cezanne’s famous letters to Emile Bernard. In a letter dated 23 October 1905, Cezanne wrote to Bernard, “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you.” In the letters that followed, Cezanne argued that in order to achieve ‘truth in painting’ it was necessary for the painter to absorb him or herself in the study of nature, and to “forget everything that has gone before us.” Truth in painting could not be achieved through imitation, but rather by learning to create paintings that worked like nature.

Through this distinction, Cezanne was attempting to establish a viable relationship between imitation and abstraction – between the desublimated, haptic act of being ‘in nature’ and the sublimated, mediated and perspectival act of painting. Sadly, Cezanne would die in 1906 without ever really reconciling this space between vision and representation, and the negotiation of this space would remain one of modernism’s defining problems.Whilst this may seem a digression, it is my belief that Pickett’s work presents a profound and critical response to the epistemic space created by this question – a question that might be seen to propel the course of Western modernism and its colonising claims toward universalism. In order to explore this connection, it is necessary to return to the very beginning of Pickett’s artistic journey where we might find the seeds of Kaanarn.

Shane Pickett was born in 1957 in the wheat-belt town of Quairading, east of Perth. From an early age, he was encouraged and inspired by artistic family members. By his late teens he was exhibiting regularly in a landscape style that was easily reconcilable with the Carrolup tradition of Parnell Dempster, Revel Cooper and Reynold Hart. And yet, despite his familial and cultural connections to this tradition, Pickett’s works were quite markedly different to those of his Carrolup predecessors. Unlike his cousin and contemporary Lance Chadd/Tjyllyungoo, Pickett did not appear to adopt the theatrical schemata that distinguished landscape painting of the South West. His approach to the landscape was considerably more lyrical and textured – characteristics that have led Brenda L. Croft to rightly suggest a closer affinity to the works of Albert Namatjira.

This comparison is illuminating. Like his cousin Tjyllyungoo and his elder brother Byron, Shane Pickett began painting in the 1970s at a time when young Indigenous Australians were finding a new faith in their Aboriginal voice. Whilst Shane’s work was never as politically explicit as that of his elder brother, its political dimension should not be dismissed. As Brian Fitzpatrick has noted, Shane has always exhibited “a quiet form of social activism.” The desire for recognition and respect of Nyoongar cultural values is a regular refrain of Pickett’s artist statements and interviews.

Shane Pickett, Bunuroo Heat Wave, 2006

If artists like Bryron represented a very visual and politically explicit side of urban Indigeneity, Tjyllyungoo and Shane Pickett were more concerned with the spiritual and metaphysical side of Nyoongar culture. Their political defiance lay less in activism than in the reclaiming and preserving the long held spirituality of their Nyoongar people. One of Pickett’s earliest works in the Art Gallery of Western Australia quite literally encapsulates this spiritual dimension. Entitled Waagle – Rainbow Serpent 1983, the work presents a fantasy-style representation of the Rainbow Serpent in the act of creating the Nyoongar people.

It is in this context that the attraction and influence of Namatjira must be understood. For although Namatjira’s landscapes were depicted in the realist Western mode of watercolour painting, by the late 1970s the hidden cultural depths of these paintings were beginning to be recognised. In the subtle differences between Namatjira’s paintings and those of his tutor Rex Battarbee, critics began to see a critical space in which Namatjira used mimicry to present a concealed Indigenous view of the landscape. Through this tactic, Ian Burn and Ann Stephen argued that Namatjira created a ‘double vision’ that articulated “a crisis of authority” in which the hierarchy of Western vision was disrupted. In Namatjira’s art, they declared, “for the first time, the landscape looks back at us: it meets and deliberately crosses the viewer’s gaze of possession.”[2]

For an advocate of ‘quiet social activism’, this strategy must have seemed an ideal way of slyly reempowering Nyoongar cultural values. Certainly it offered a culturally specific way of exploring and representing the ‘deeper meaning’ of the landscape. And yet, by his abandonment of figurative landscape, we might presume that this was a tactic whose usefulness Pickett soon exhausted. A clue to his reasoning can be found in Pickett’s comments regarding one of his first tentative explorations into abstraction.

In 1988, Shane Pickett was commissioned to produce an image for the Fifth Marcel Grossman conference at the University of Western Australia. Whilst the choice of the art of a young Nyoongar artist to represent a conference of international physicists might have seemed incongruous, Pickett took the conference’s theme ‘Views of the Universe’ as an invitation to explore the possible intersections between his Nyoongar spirituality and the conference’s focus on universal phenomena. Entitled Supernova, the painting Pickett produced combined dappled areas of texture with brilliant bursts of colour in a symbolic depiction of an exploding star. Speaking on the work, Pickett commented:

I see the supernova as a natural force that is the source of all energy and all life. Some people might call it ‘God’ but I see it as a spiritual creator with no name.We try to tie everything down with a title, but when we do most people mistake the title for reality.[3]

Whilst Pickett’s comments rearticulated the metaphysical and spiritual concerns of his earlier works, they also signify one of his earliest articulations of a suspicion of the space between nature and representation – precisely that space that preoccupied Cezanne. That this acknowledgement of this space occurs with his first moves away from figuration provides a telling insight into the motives behind Pickett’s move from figuration into abstraction and reveals the conceptual limits that Pickett found in the strategy of mimicry adopted from Namatjira.

The strategy of mimicry is a typically postcolonial strategy of resistance. And yet, as a strategy it is forged with difficulties. The most central of these is that it necessitates difference and therefore repeats the very structures of otherness that it attempts to subvert. In an incisive article on the problems of postcolonialism, Rasheed Arareen notes that in this situation, cultural difference is not situated as a site of continuity, but rather as a sign to maintain difference.[4] Namatjira’s work then, gets caught in an inescapable circularity in which it can only be defined by its similarity and difference to the dominant cultural paradigms. Namatjira’s art can only be critical in so much as it assimilates Western art, but at the same time it can only be critical in so much as it is incomplete in this assimilation. In a passage that helps shed considerable light on Pickett’s move away from the allegorical landscape style of Namatjira, Rex Butler comments:

If in one way the first [desublimated, tactile, preceding vision] precedes the second [sublimated, panoramic, perspectival], in another way it can only be perceived within it, it is only a retrospective effect of it … it is lost in being found, and thus found in being lost. It is not a blindness opposed to sight, but a blindness within sight or a blindness that allows sight … The problem set by the painting , therefore, is … how do we pass from a seeing without reading (that first, haptic experience of the landscape, that of the explorer making his way through it) to a reading without seeing (that second, exclusively visual experience of the landscape, that of the art historian)?[5]

It is precisely this difficulty that we can see in Pickett’s frustration at the ontological space between nature and representation articulated in his comments about Supernova. When I pressed Pickett on the meaning of these comments, the artist provided a fascinating and thoroughly unpredictable response. “Naming’, he declared, ‘has done a lot of damage to Indigenous families. It has caused a lot of struggle hurt and hate.” Pickett’s direct association of this passage between nature and representation as being inherently colonial provides a direct answer to Butler’s question of how one passes between this space. As Butler continues, the problem is the missing ahistorical kernel that propels the whole system – that allows this system of Western vision to take place in the first place. For Pickett the answer is stunningly obvious. This whole process, from Cezanne to Namatjira and beyond, is propelled by modernity and its attendant bugbears of imperialism, capitalism and colonialism.

It is this system that Pickett seeks to evade in his transition to abstraction. Signalling a move away from the ‘photographic’ (synecdoche) to the ‘deeper meaning’ (totalised), Pickett attempts to entirely evade the paradigm of modernism by entering an entirely different temporal zone. Pickett achieves this through the metaphysical nexus of the ‘Dreaming.’ In a symbolic rejection of the notion of modernism’s progress, Pickett adopts the supposed peak of modernism’s progress (abstraction) while at the same time using this abstraction to refer to an older origin (that of pre-colonial Nyoongar culture). In entering into the secret and sacred cosmology of the Dreaming, Pickett distances himself from the problematic space between seeing and reading, and instead places the emphasis on a hierarchical system of information and learning. In a gesture that completely confuses Western teleology, Pickett creates a new tradition from these origins, while at the same time abandoning another tradition (that of the Carrolup painters.)

Shane Pickett, Campfires of our Yesterday’s People, 2006

This temporal zone of the Dreaming is however, intrinsically linked to the world of the present. As David Abram has noted, the Dreaming “was never wholly cut off from the sensuous world of the living present. They were not projected entirely outside of the experienced world, but were felt as the mystery and hidden depth of the sensuous world itself.”[6] It is this secret ‘truth’ that Pickett uncovers in the landscape and it is this truth to which Pickett refers in two of his most majestic works included in Kaanarn. In the paintings Campfires of our Yesterday’s People at Closing Day and its companion piece Embers of the Dreaming during Wanyarang, Pickett allows the glimpse of fire on the horizon. “In the Dreamtime’, he tells us, ‘the properties of fire were stored in a number of places: the Balga and Banksia bushes, harder timbers such as Jarrah and Redgum, and the flints of certain rocks.” Pickett has defined his aims as a painter as being the ‘rekindling of cultural strength’ amongst young Nyoongar people. In this context, the metaphor of the balga and the banksia bushes is a powerful one, for it reveals the emergent possibilities of the Dreamtime. This fire is always within the Dreaming, ready to rekindle and renew to those who know where to look.

[1] It is a remarkable fact that in 2003 when the Art Gallery of Western Australia surveyed Western Australian Indigenous art from the South West for their landmark exhibition South West Central, there was an almost complete absence of abstract painting. Pickett was included with eight works spanning his career, of which only one – the monumental triptych Traditional Story 2001 could be considered truly abstract.

[2] Ian Burn and Ann Stephen,“Albert Namatjira:The White Mask”, in Rex Butler (ed.), Radical Revisionism: An Anthology of Writings on Australian Art, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2005, p.231.

[3] Shane Pickett quoted in Alex Harris, ‘This artist brushes up on science’, The West Australian, 18 June 1988.

[4] Rasheed Arareen, ‘Come What May: Beyond the Emperor’s New Clothes’, in Nikos Papastergiadis (ed.), Complex Entanglements, Artspace, Woolloomooloo, p.138.

[5] Rex Butler, A Secret History of Australian Art, Craftsman House, 2002, p.116.

[6] David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage Books, New York, 1996, p.220.

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