In Australia in 1971, a 30-year-old white Sydney schoolteacher named Geoff Bardon took a posting in the Aboriginal-relocation community of Papunya in the outback west of Alice Springs, teaching art to the children of the patchwork indigenous community. When he began to encourage them to paint the traditional patterns they habitually traced in the sand — instead of the westernized cowboy-and-Indian scenarios that were expected of them — he inadvertently triggered one of the most remarkable artistic events of the 20th century. The Western Desert Art Movement began as a sudden outpouring of traditional visual material by dirt-poor male Aboriginal elders in this unlikely remote location, and has basically continued unabated, while expanding into a successful multibillion-dollar niche of the international art market and a major source of economic support, cultural pride and political empowerment for the indigenous Australian people.

Less than two years after arriving in Papunya, having broken under the pressure of racist individuals and institutions that wanted to stick to helping the natives with the tried-and-true strategies of incremental genocide, a.k.a. assimilation (and Johnny-on-the-spot carpetbaggers eager to cheat the artists out of even the relative pittances their canvases fetched in those early days), Bardon fled the settlement in the middle of the night, and unwittingly committed himself into the hands of notorious psychiatrist Dr. Harry Bailey, whose MK-ULTRA-style “treatments” consisted of lengthy induced barbiturate comas spiked with massive electroshocks — sometimes on a daily basis and often unauthorized. Twenty-six people died while under his care, and many others — Bardon included — were left permanently disabled. Continual pressure from dissatisfied customers, activists (including Scientology!) and journalists finally got Bailey’s “deep-sleep therapy” clinic shut down, and Bailey killed himself in 1985 in the face of a government investigation.

This peculiar and tragic story of almost accidental inspiration and martyrdom lies uneasily at the center of the history of contemporary Australian Aboriginal painting, so it’s appropriate that a short documentary on Bardon’s Papunya experience — 2004’s Mr. Patterns, directed by Catriona McKenzie — runs, like an anomalous apparition from another world, looped on a monitor in the middle of the UCLA Fowler Museum’s two concurrent exhibits of Western Desert Painting. Which is an interesting inversion, since the paintings themselves are, more or less, portals to another dimension.

Australian Aboriginal painting — complex and dazzling patterns of dots, lines and abstract geometrical shapes — are multilayered cultural artifacts whose symbolic visual vocabulary derives from ceremonial sand painting and body decoration, and can be found in petroglyphs that predate Western written language. They act simultaneously on multiple levels: as aerial landscape maps of traditional tribal domains, detailing the precise locations of food, water and other scarce resources necessary for nomadic desert survival; as recountings of mythological Creation stories of the Altjeringa or Dreamtime, when totemic ancestor spirits crisscrossed the world, laying out the structure that makes life possible and gives it meaning; as depictions of ceremonial rituals by which the Dreamtime — which exists as a sort of parallel realm of timeless continual creation underlying phenomenal reality — may be accessed; as operative manifestations of these rituals — i.e., portals to another dimension; and as objects of exquisite beauty.

According to their creators, the paintings have further layers still, esoteric spiritual import that is discernible only to the initiated. In fact, for this reason, much of the work in the front gallery of Icons of the Desert — the exhibit focusing on the first couple of years’ worth of work from the Papunya collective — can’t be exhibited in Australia, and is represented in the catalog by blank gray rectangles (though a U.S.-only supplement includes the missing images).

As Bardon’s encouragement of the Papunya children to paint their traditional Dreamings came to the attention of the settlers’ elder men, and they approached the young teacher, suggesting it might be more appropriate for them to set their traditional visual culture down in the relatively permanent medium of acrylic paint. Bardon happily arranged for them to paint a “Honey Ant Dreaming” mural on the side of the school (soon painted over by hostile authorities), then set them up in one end of the town hall (a corrugated metal hangar), where they began pouring out Dreamings onto whatever scavenged surfaces they could find: scraps of Masonite composition board and other discarded building materials, ceramic tiles, tabletops, linings from automotive paneling. Eventually more than 20 men were producing work, and during Bardon’s tenure roughly 1,000 unique paintings were produced.

After Bardon crashed and burned, a consensus arose among the artists that too much sacred content was being exposed in some of the work (the taboo front-gallery material mentioned earlier) and they began to routinely obscure this information with greater abstraction — particularly a denser accumulation of the signature dot patterning. Bardon’s successor, Peter Fannin, initiated the shift to canvas — a more archival, shippable and art world–credible surface, which allowed the artists to also expand the scale of their work. The painters collectivized as Papunya Tula, a government-supported, Aboriginal-run collective that operates to this day. Women began painting, and other art centers and collectives sprang up in the wake of Papunya’s success. At the 1986 Biennale of Sydney, Aboriginal painting became an international art-world phenomenon, swept up by the simultaneous boom in the art market, revival of interest in painting, and new enthusiasm among academics and collectors for supporting non-Western art traditions.

One of the earliest enthusiasts to devote his attention to assembling a significant group of Aboriginal paintings was the idiosyncratic Santa Monica–based maritime collector Richard Kelton, from whose archives is drawn the second Fowler show, Innovations in Western Desert Painting 1972-1999, which features 14 of the later, large-scale works on canvas to spectacular effect. Icons of the Desert was curated by Roger Benjamin for the Johnson Museum at Cornell entirely from the collection of John and Barbara Wilkerson, who came to Aboriginal art somewhat later but focused their attention on the brief, early “Papunya boards” period.

The result is an unparalleled object lesson in a particular moment of art history, a breathtaking display of human visual invention, and one of the most moving and aesthetically revolutionary painting shows, Western, non-Western, whatever — I’ve ever seen. Individually, Aboriginal paintings often radiate a sense of embodied spirituality. Collectively, in this quantity and of this quality, they charge the space with a palpable electrical thrum of mundane consciousness awakened to the sacred Dreamtime — within which the greed, cynicism and betrayal (not to mention criminal malpractice) that led to Geoff Bardon’s undoing recede like details in a cautionary fable handed down from some far-off, forgotten era.

Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings From Papunya and Innovations in Western Desert Painting, 1972-1999: Selections From the Kelton Foundation | Fowler Museum at UCLA | 308 Charles E. Young Drive North, L.A. | Through August 2

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