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Robert Ambrose Cole

Robert Ambrose Cole

1959 - 1994

Robert Ambrose Cole is best known for having created of a distinct personal niche between traditional and contemporary Indigenous art styles through his experimentation with ‘dotting’ techniques. While growing up in urban Mparntwe (Alice Springs), he encountered a variety of influences. The tradition-based art movements emerging from the Central and Western Deserts inspired him, as did the European-influenced landscapes of the Hermannsburg watercolourists.  Due in part to his own ancestral heritage, both provided fertile areas of artistic exploration, but it was in their eventual synthesis that Cole’s art reached its ultimate aesthetic realization. Cole himself was an unassuming man who approached his art with great caring and sincerity and was reluctant to explain his imagery. Yet despite the decidedly spiritual or contemplative feel across his entire oeuvre, art patrons, curators and critics often made profound statements when commenting on his works. Though his style varied, many of his more recongisable works were inhabited by a particular kind of meticulous and evenly laid white dotting. This is the one constant in a body of work spanning the six years prior to 1994, the year of the artist’s death. He began painting in 1988, at the age of twenty-nine and worked at the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association. CAAMA brought him into contact with artists from the Utopia region, a people with whom he shared an ancestral heritage through paternal ties. Cole’s personal interpretation of the Utopia method led him to fuse this style with a European figurative influence. Although his work remained predominantly conceptual, the tension between the figurative and the abstract was a continuing theme throughout his work. The technique of wash and overlay, prompted Cole to experiment with delicate and sensitive blends of colour and tonal relationships, often generating a glowing otherworldly patina across the surface. In other works however, he built a stronger surface texture.  Areas of dots emphasized the substantiality of simple forms within an expansive and highly charged field.  The ambiguity between distinct structure and dissolving boundaries found its fullest expression in the works painted just prior to his untimely death through illness at the age of thirty five.   Coles earliest works took up the imagery of sites and symbols attached to the country and people of his parents; the Warramunga people of Banka Banka, north of Tennant Creek on his mother’s side and Aputula, Finke, the sandstone hills on the edge of the Simpson Desert, on his fathers side. Yet Cole was removed from conventional narratives of Aboriginal art, partly by his conscious abstraction and also by his reluctance to explain his imagery. Perhaps he wanted to avoid being fetishized as a painter of spiritualised forms. For instance, the sense of an aerial view, a perspective that occurred throughout his work, was not explained as a land narrative. And, though it was grounded in traditional Aboriginal culture, Cole appears to have been most concerned with his own personal painterly exploration of colour and form. His dots were always carefully measured, spaced, and applied with attention to varying sizes and areas.  While the creation of a surface vibration by varying dot size and spacing is part of a continuing aspect of Aboriginal painting, Cole strove for a precision that differentiated his work from other artists working in the same vein. Figures and shapes below the surface were contained and defined by the overlaid dots to give the effect of a shimmering, mirage –like illusion (not dissimilar to that of op art). The ebb and flow of indistinct shapes were accompanied by the constant assertion of their presence. Cole’s work was best defined within this schema.  In Two Spirits 1991, we can make out the form of two figures, defined by two distinct fields of dots. A third layer of paint is drizzled (Pollock-like), across the canvas, adding an element of chaos to the meticulously laid background. In describing his work, Margo Neale wrote ‘…the spiritual fervour or contemplative state that accompanies the act of creating is an act of homage which also makes them religious icons' (1994: 95).   

Robert Ambrose Cole painted for only a brief period and was principally promoted through Christopher Hodges’ Utopia Art Gallery in Sydney and galleries that he worked with including Mary Reid Brunstrom’s Austral Gallery in St. Louis, U.S.A. Cole only lived long enough to have two exhibitions yet within the brief span of his career his work was included in a number of important art awards; was issued on a stamp by Australia Post, and most importantly, included in Australian Perspecta at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1993. His paintings were generally small and created on either paper or canvas as was the case with his highest priced work, which measured just 69.6 x 50 cm and sold for $11,162 when estimated at $6,000-8,000 by Christie's in August 2000 (Lot 8).  This was one of five works by Cole sold through Christie's which have generated $31,134 since his work first appeared in salerooms in 2000. Only two other auction houses have presented his paintings. Sotheby’s have sold just one for $575 the year his work first appeared at auction in 1999. Since that time Christies and Lawson~Menzies have championed Cole’s work. The latter have sold seven pieces for a total of $29,040 including six of his ten highest results on the secondary market to date. Another work sold by Christies in 2000 had been included in the landmark exhibition Spirit and Place: Art in Australia 1861-1996, held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 1996-1997. Measuring just 79 x 59.5 cm and painted in 1992, this untitled work sold for $7,475 against a presale estimate of $4,000-6,000. It was no finer in quality two excellent works on paper that both failed to sell in 2008 at Leonard Joel, despite extremely reasonable estimates. A missed opportunity had a discriminating collector picked them up and re-offered them through an auction house more familiar with the artist’s work.  Despite the failures above, that resulted in his success rate dropping from 81% to 72% Cole’s clearance  is still  impressive. Most of those works that have failed to sell have been screenprints carrying overly high estimates. While his best year at auction was 2000 when both his highest and fourth priced paintings sold at Christies, his most prolific years in the salesrooms have been 2005-2006 during which five of six paintings offered sold for a total of $30,200. His works are highly desirable and eminently affordable at an average price of just $4,673. Collectors would be wise to keep an eye out for any that come up for sale. With estimates running in the $8,000-10,000 range these works certainly seem to represent very good value given their rarity.  

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