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Boxer Milner Tjampitjin

Boxer Milner Tjampitjin

1935 - 2009


After many of the oldest and most venerated men who began painting at Balgo Hills in the late 1980’s had already passed away, one artist emerged during the late ’90s and early 2000s, who may come to be considered the most remarkable of them all. Boxer Milner, a tall, gentle old cattleman began painting quite minimal, small, rigid, paintings with linear shapes and large amounts of monochromatic dotting in the late 1980's. Growing in confidence as an artist through the 1990’s, his paintings veered further and further away from conventional Balgo aesthetics as he went on to create ever more exciting and challenging compositions. His work stands out as the very best the region has produced in paintings that offer an entirely different vision from the vivid depictions of sandy desert country, characteristic of the majority of Balgo artists. Born at Milnga-Milnga, south-west of Billiluna near Sturt Creek c.1934, Boxer was one of a small number who come from the transition zone between the desert and the river country. This is Tjaru land, where the country and vegetation move from flat and featureless rolling spinifex plains to flood plains with enormous river channels and permanent water holes. Here the yearly cycles of flood and dry create swamps with abundant bird life, through which runs Purkitji, or Sturt Creek. It is the intimate knowledge of all the facets of the river system as a traditional owner of Purkitji, which informed the majority of Boxer’s paintings and his unique aesthetic. He represented this land in a way that was more than just physical - it was geographic, meteorological and mythical. His country is redolent with colours, landmarks, and a life force very different to that which exists only a short distance to the South, where the Great Sandy Desert begins. Paintings from this region have colours - blues and greens - that are not found elsewhere in Balgo art. In Boxer’s paintings, floodwaters are coloured by the white silt of the surrounding clay country. This is the ‘milk water’, which features in many of Boxer’s works, providing a geometric grid against which the rest of the landscape is represented, imposing carefully depicted boundaries of story over the land. His motifs refer to the miraculous transformations in the land and sky as new life seeps into the flat lands; of the passage of water and the changing coloured tides; and the mythological drama associated with the sight and sound of thunder, lightning, rain, and brilliant rainbows. Colour changes represent the trees and vegetation, the red and white stones, the black soil, the myriad channels and tributaries, the hills and the contours that define the artist’s home. All this is contained within the dot and line work that surrounds the inescapable forms and patterns that he employed to portray Purkitji. Boxer’s paintings are characterised by a masterful sense of composition and an innate ability to mix and marry colours on the canvas. Stylistically his paintings take the linear compositional elements developed by artists such as Lucy Yukenbarri and John Lee Tjakamarra, and elevate them to a level unparalleled by any other painter. His incredibly large hands painted with great control, assurance, and precision, using a two handed action that was an absolute expression of patience and integrity. Former art co-ordinator, Erica Izett, described his colour fields as ‘mesmerising and precisely articulated. Each dot is applied to the canvas twice over with a stick, so that it sits up, much like a frozen raindrop piercing water or dust‘. For Boxer, each brushstroke was measured and definite, with deliberate dots covering the surface of the canvas. While he may have begun painting with primaries, the finished paintings consist of an incredible range of colours, which he mixed carefully. He juxtaposed reds and pinks or blues and lavenders, filling the entire canvas with dots. The colours created by Boxer are different to those of any other Balgo painter and at times can be totally unexpected.  A self-taught colour mixer, Boxer showed an extraordinary sense of subtlety and beauty. As he advanced in age his work stood out as the very best the region has produced. Tim Acker, now with the artist’s advocacy association, Desart, spent several years at Balgo Hills and knew Boxer and his art intimately. Despite having worked with Aboriginal artists across the far north and desert regions and with all of the great living Balgo artists, in his opinion there was 'no artist I’ve ever met like Boxer. His work is amongst the most distinctive of all Aboriginal artists, anywhere. His inventiveness, the way he plays with form, structure, and shape is unique, as is his use of colour'. Acker likened watching Boxer paint to ‘watching a sculpture being carved from stone'. He approached the canvas so patiently, assessed it so carefully, before recreating - dot by dot, stroke by stroke, in a thrilling variety of ways - the story of that flood-prone Purkitji country.

Collectors have long recognised that the art from the country around Balgo Hills in remote Western Australia is amongst the most visually distinctive of all Aboriginal painting. The region has revealed some truly innovative and exciting artists since art materials were first supplied there in the mid 1980s. None more so than Boxer Milner, whose incredible sense of composition, innate ability as a colourist, and supreme confidence in the medium resulted in paintings that could quite easily be exhibited internationally without any cultural reference whatsoever. While demand for his painting far outstriped supply in the primary market during his lifetime, his fortunes have been mixed at auction where, other than a single work which first appeared for sale in 1995 his works were unavailable until 2001. In that year only one sold of three offered and since that time about as many sold as passed until 2007 when all three of those works offered entered his ten highest results. Mossgreen established the artist’s current record in 2007, for what was undoubtedly the finest work by Boxer that has appeared at auction to date. The work, Purkitji 2003, from the Elizabeth Jones collection, was featured on the front cover of its Australian Aboriginal Art catalogue and was offered with an estimate of $25,000-30,000 (Lot 18). Measuring 180 x 120 cm it sold after spirited bidding for $38,864, a figure more than $10,000 higher than the previous record set by Sotheby’s in 2004. Another work that sold in 2007 was created in 2003 and carried an estimate of $6,000-8,000. It sold in June at Joel Fine Art for $15,600 (Lot 48), and an unusually figurative work with plain white woomeras and boomerangs depicted in a field of coloured dotting sold in the Mossgreen sale for $10,950 (Lot 32). As a result of this favourable activity in 2007, Boxer’s clearance rate jumped by 4% with total sales for the year topping $64,000, his best ever to date. However, this fine result was offset the following year when only three works of the eight offered sold, and this depressed his career clearance rate once more, this time from 54% to 51%, despite his average sale price increasing by almost $1,000. The favourable hike in average price was due in part to  the success of Rainbow Serpent at Sturt Creek 1999, a 180 x 120 cm painting which sold for more than $10,000 above its high estimate in Sotheby's October sale (Lot No. 134). 2009 confused the picture further. The artist’s clearance rate improved to 56%, with seven of nine works offered finding buyers. The most impressive sales amongst these set his second and fifth highest results to date. 2010 brought the sale of Rainbow Dreaming near Purkitji (Sturt Creek) 1999 for $19,200, making a new sixth place record, with a clearance rate dipping a touch to 55%. Two strong sales, in 2011 created new 3rd and 6th place results, and in 2015 seven of nine works on offer sold for an average price of $7,842 against his career average of $12,093. Boxer Milner prefered to paint canvases larger than 60 x 90 cm. As a result he has a disproportionably high number of results in excess of $5,000 compared to his overall offerings. Overall, apart from a poor clearance rate which is likely to improve steadily as good works come into the market, Boxer’s paintings have performed well in the short time they have been offered at auction. His works have been exhibited widely in group shows since the early 1990s and have been acquired by many public collections including the National Gallery of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria. His two solo shows with Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne in 2000, and with Coo-ee Aboriginal Art in 2003 both sold out. Not all of his works are popular however. Boxer began painting at the beginning of the 1990s and works created prior to 1995 are definitely less accomplished than those that followed. A good example of an early career work was The Artist’s Birthplace at Sturt Creek 1993, offered for sale by Sotheby’s in November 2005. While the unusual use of turquoise to highlight several tributaries and billabongs adjacent to the river system was a harbinger of things to come, the painting overall is not stylistically dissimilar to more conventional Balgo paintings by lesser artists of the time. It was offered with a presale estimate of just $2,000-4,000 and sold for $3,120 (Lot 402). There is no doubt that Boxer Milner’s finest and most distinctive works were created between 1997 and 2005. He died in 2009 and, now that works in the primary market have dried up, it is likely that in order to acquire a fine example at auction collectors will need to study his oeuvre carefully and be prepared to pay significantly more than was the case in the past for works of good size and quality.   

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