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Appraisal of Tim Johnson's work is these days invariably accompanied by debates sourced in the painful realm of Australian black/white politics. Within the jargon-spewing mechanisms of the white art system, and for sections of the engaged black community, "appropriation" and "convergence" are terms packed with potential risks, risks which symbolize a whole, ongoing (but not unstoppable) history of dispersal and subsumption.
That his art has been placed as an iconic cipher at the centre of these issues is unavoidable, given its substance, and the multiple roles Tim Johnson assumes in the field – as curator, writer and spokesperson as well as practitioner. The artist is clearly not unwilling to extend and contribute to the exchanges. His appearance at forums and discussions dealing, in marginal or focal ways, with "aboriginality", seems a compulsory component of such events - since mid-March this year, for instance, he has participated in Artists' Week, Biennale and Institute of Modern Art panel debates on the subject. Johnson's work (After Canaletto, 1986) is currently hung alongside Western Desert art in the dubious finale to Daniel Thomas's Bicentennial "Great Australian Art" exhibition and he has a sensitive catalogue essay, on Clifford Possum Tjapaltj arri's Man's Love Story, (1978) in the accompanying text. This exhaustive, if not unproblematic, infiltration of the critical/curatorial. machine is more than a little ironic considering Tim Johnson's designation of his early forays into aboriginal communities as journeys away from an art world which had rejected him.
The popular and commercial appeal of Johnson's April show at the Bellas Gallery was not openly mediated by any of these concerns, though some of them were debated at the later I.M.A. forum (June 17th). The work in the Sellas exhibition was strong, lyrical and surprisingly and subtlely diverse. Major multi-panel works like Birth of the Sun, extravagantly and familiarly screened by dots but still alive with detail, were juxtaposed with whimsical, calligraphic statements of allegiance such as Open That Door, a small (46x60 cm) two-panel work united in its centre by a Land Rights Flag. The authority and success of works such as these are what cause the enveloping thematics to matter. Questions of cultural propriety are created, not resolved by, the actuality of the paintings.
How persuasive the aura of "ethnicity" is to the escalating market and institutional reception of Tim Johnson's paintings cannot be investigated in a brief exhibition commentary, and the quality of the body of work presented at Sellas makes it difficult to justify the overtly accusatory tone of some sections of the critical chorus. Johnson borrows from Western Desert acrylic painting collaborative marks and processes (dotting, sometimes familiarly concentric - as in Trees; the tracks of feet and hands etc); he does not usurp mythological content. The associations are not dispassionate but neither are they presumptive. More Tim Johnson, Eternal Return, 1988 bothersome is the danger that the range of totemic inclusions in Johnson's paintings (from gilt Buddhas to Papunya dots to shapes filled with expressionist texture) is unavoidably related to a universalizing, inherently Western distillation of things which consequently battle to retain their discrete power.