two laws … one big spirit: rusty peters & peter adsett

Ballarat Art Gallery, Victoria
February 2002 - December 2003

Two laws certainly, and two notations. A common humanity and One Big Spirit. In these works Rusty Peters and Peter Adsett recorded the same seven pieces of land and lore but they paint so differently. Peters records country in black, white and rust, and with spirit. We who are unversed in the traditional stories/maps read his works as abstracts. However, we have some sense of grasping his spiritual meaning, if only subliminally. Peters is spontaneous: his works seem to flower out of their land. Peters' works are organic. Peter Adsett's are geometric. Adsett paints in black and white over a red ground which shows only at the buzzing edges of his straight lines (and on the edges where the canvas goes over the stretcher). He adds a subtext of red earth to the tensions of his planes of stark black and white. Each area pushes against the other. Adsett's New Zealand black light and white mist (see McCahon) become a metaphor for contested possession of Australian places. Black and white are not really colours: the thin flickers of red underline both this and where Ad sett is at.

It is pointless to try to read across the two artists' notations for an obvious common sense or meaning. This is a bi-lingual exhibition, but it is not a Rosetta stone. This despite the fact that Ad sett has a deeper understanding of the law/lore than the rest of us, having walked country with an Aboriginal Elder. He is not quite an interpreter for us. He moves from the land/plain to the plane of his canvas, thrusting black against white, white against black, always avoiding the calm of the golden section. Adsett paints with deliberate tension, while the Peters works flow fluently like birdsong. The idea of doing 7 X 2 paintings because there are 14 Stations of the Cross is Adsett's: Rusty Peters' myths are other, and older. Ad sett's spirituality uses art as its language, but in a different way from Peters.

The tenseness and masterly anxiety of Ad sett's works may be metaphoric of the relationships of two peoples, but they do not read off as lessons in politics. His Painting Number 10, with its suggestion of a vertigo of perspective, points up a difference between the two notations, window versus map. But Peters' 'maps' hang well on walls, as maps do. The Adsett, calculatedly, hangs oddly.

Adsett's Painting Number Two has the black almost pushing the white out, a visual dynamic which reminds New Zealand viewers that the Maori nearly pushed the white settlers out in the Land-wars. Painting Number Two, seen in the Ballarat Art Gallery hanging at right angles to Peters' powerful, mythic The Place I was Born, is edgy: edgy read as 'hard edged', as 'nervous'.

What emerges on Adsett's side of the co-operative enterprise is the transformation, perhaps, of a political struggle for ground, to an aesthetic struggle with the picture plane as flat rectangle. He revives and revifies the project of Modernism.

Modernism was not just an era. It is an alive way of reading, visually. It is Modernism which allows us to construe at least in part Rusty Peters' works, getting some sense of their true depth. A full comprehension would require from us more than mere good will.

We have in NAIDOC week, at the beginning of which this review was written, a tremendous sense of what still remains to be done to turn so excellent an aesthetic co-project into ordinary, everyday life. One Spirit, indeed, but two unresolved laws, lores, notations- ways, even, of being. Black and white are not colours: and the Big Spirit, as James McBride has it, is The Colour of Water.

There is, gratis, an excellent fully illustrated, single-sheet fold out catalogue accompanying the exhibition. There is a useful dialogue between Peters and Adsett about the difficulty of dialogue: Mary-Alice Lee's perceptive and informative essay adds greatly to an understanding of this-quite magnificent-exhibition.


'we have our way of making song and dance and you have yours' - Rusty Peters

'Two Laws. . .One Big Spirit' was first shown at 24HR ART, Darwin in September 2000. It is being toured nationally by Art Back, NT Arts Touring.