George Hairbrush Tjungurrayi
George Hairbrush Tjungurrayi
Born near the claypan and soakwater site of Wala Wala in the far reaches of the Western Desert, George Tjungurrayi's initial contact with the outside world occurred as a seventeen-year-old boy. He left the Gibson Desert on foot in the company of three other Pintupi companions to walk the long road east until intercepted by a truck just south of Mount Doreen. Soon after walking in to Papunya in 1962, he became a guide for Jeremy Long’s welfare patrol into Pintupi country later that year. He finally settled in West Camp, Papunya, where he began painting around 1976 after encouragement from Nosepeg Tjupurrula. Over the following decade George worked intermittently at Yayayi and Mount Liebig, and also Walungurru. His works, created during the 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s, were characterized by the ubiquitous dotted grids of lines and circles common to works by Yala Yala Gibbs, Anatjari Tjamptjinpa and others who played a formative influence in Pintupi Tingari imagery. While painting at Papunya and its outstations in the late 1970's, George worked in close proximity to these and other ‘established’ artists. It was not until well in to the mid 1980’s that he expanded his palette beyond the autumnal tones created by the basic palette of red, yellow, black and white by mixing in a wider array of colours and experimenting stylistically. His preoccupation from the outset had been the ceremonial activities and men’s stories associated with the travels of the Tingari ancestors as they relate to his most significant sites including his birthplace Wala Wala, and the region surrounding Kiwirrkura, Lake Mackay, Kulkuta, Karku, Ngaluwinyamana, and Kilpinya to the north-west of Kintore.
His art first achieved prominence when exhibited in Friendly Country-Friendly People, organized by Dick Kimber at Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs in 1990. The work selected included the figurative representation of the Snake, Kunia, curled at its ancestral home in Karrilwarra. However, figuration in his work had always been rare and by 1994, George had forsaken figurative imagery altogether in favour of works entirely composed of duo-tone linear roundels and shapes arranged in tight formal geometric patterns that pulsed with a subtle optical rhythm. His works had always suggested a sacred geometry related to topographic depictions of the sites visited by the Tingari, but from this period onward his paintings grew increasingly distanced stylistically from their ceremonial origins and the application of distinct dotted brush strokes.
Tjungurrayi depicts the Tingari Dreaming Cycle and the sacred sites of his ancestral history. However, he departs from the characteristic style of Western Desert painting, with its distinct dotted style, in his minimalist approach to iconography and by creating linear effects through the paint. In common with Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and Turkey Tolson, George experimented for a time with four panelled squares and rectangles before returning to transverse parallel lines that made eccentric deviations toward the margins of the painted surface. According to Judith Ryan the major Tingari Dreaming that Tjungurrayi created in 1996 (now hanging in the National Gallery of Victoria) marks the moment at which he reached the ‘conceptual distillation’ of his signature style. ‘The gently brushed pale mauve and plum lines create tonal reflections and visual sensations, like reverberations in a lake’. While the final work is duotone in appearance, the artist has technically worked in four layers by painting and overpainting two shades of subtle colour with different pigment densities in quivering perfect parallel lines. The work, according to Ryan, became a template for his paintings that followed.
This stylistic departure from ceremonial origins was part of a larger movement of the Papunya Tula artists, which Rex Butler has described as fundamentally abstract and modernist. ‘The decisions Tjungurrayi makes in putting together his paintings are first of all artistic … (thus) it is not culturally specific; its specificity is that belonging to painting itself' (Butler 2002: 2). Regardless of whether Tjungurrayi’s art, along with that of Emily Kngwarreye for instance, is mediated by culture and history or free of it, this approach to the act of painting itself has certainly been accepted in the art market. The work of a number of Papunya men including George, Willy Tjungurrayi, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Mick Namarari and Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, can clearly be seen as a move away from traditional conventions. The magical power of these works draws on their original source, and primary influence, that of the ancient artistic lexicon inherent in the fluted carving, keyed designs, and fine parallel lines that embellish men’s ceremonial shields and sacred objects. They have no focus but invite the viewer to enter a crucial cultural performance. The energy and life-force enacted on to the painted surface evokes sensations and sensibilities that must primarily be experienced and felt. The eye of the viewer travels over the surface of these paintings, paralleling the way they move over nature. In doing so they are charged with an intensity that can become disorienting. While they continue to symbolize ancestral journeys and ceremonial body paint designs, they find immediate favour amongst collectors in an era of modernist globalism as they fit neatly with western notions of abstract minimalism and have serendipitous aesthetic parallels with works created contemporaneously by ‘Op-art’ and ‘simulationist’ artists such as Victor Vasarely, Ross Bleckner, Phillip Taaffe, and Bridget Riley. As with the works of his Pintupi male contemporaries George Tjungurrayi’s works have no real focus yet they can be ‘inhabited, so that the mind’s eye, or the eye’s mind, can move about them credibly’. In common with early works by Riley, ‘nature is not landscape, but the dynamism of visual forces, an event rather than an appearance’.
George Tjungurrayi held his first solo exhibitions in 1997 at Utopia Art Sydney and the following year at Gallery Gabreille Pizzi in Melbourne, about which Robert Rooney wrote a rave review in the Melbourne Age. By 2000 George Tjungurrayi had become one of Papunya Tula’s most sought after painters and was listed amongst Art Collector magazine’s 50 most collectable artists in 2003, the same year that he had been included on the exhibition Meridian, Focus on Contemporary Aboriginal Art at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. His work featured in the landmark exhibition Talking about Abstraction at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery in 2004, an exhibition intended to compare works by Western and Indigenous artists and examine the ways in which each was directly influenced by or resonant with the other. In 2006 he was highly commended 34th Alice Prize and the following year he was selected as a finalist in the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. George Tjungurrayi’s work is held in many important international museums including the Groniger Museum in the Netherlands and the Musee des Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie in Paris. Alongside Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, George Tjungurrayi has now become the principle living exponent of Pintupi men’s art.
George Tjunurrayi’s works first appeared at auction in 1995, the year that Yatintjanga 1978 (painted just two years after he took up the brush) was offered for sale. The 125 x 162 cm canvas was a fine example of Pintupi Tingari paintings of the period, featuring interconnected sites in very pleasing earth tones. It was estimated at $10,000-15,000 and sold at Sotheby's for just $11,500 (Lot 615) . This is still the highest price ever achieved for an early career work and currently the 22nd highest result his paintings have achieved at auction.
By the end of 2001, 12 works had been offered of which ten had sold. However, despite a clearance rate of 83%, his average price at that time was a paltry $2,846. It was not until 2002 that a work achieved a price anywhere near those commanded by his better works in the primary market. In June that year Sotheby’s sold Mamultjulkulnga 1998 a painting that measured 152 x 181.5 cm for $26,840 (Lot 44) It was transcended the following year when a similarly sized work, Paykapungkunya 1997, sold for $35,750.
Very few major paintings failed to sell until 2008, a year which saw only six of the 22 works offered find new homes, thereby dropping his career success rate dramatically from 63% to 54%. Yet 2008 also saw two works enter his top ten at second and eighth position. His then record price had been achieved the previous year for a work depicting the claypan site of Mamultjulkulnga near Lake McKay created in 2001. The large Papunya Tula provenanced piece, in which the finest of line work was meticulously layered to achieve the final glowing terracotta tones, justified its $50,000-70,000 estimate by achieving the midpoint at Sotheby’s November sale (Lot 57). In 2009 Deutscher and Hackett justified an even higher estimate of $70,000-90,000 by setting a new record for the sale of Untitled 2001 for $72,000. The large work, measuring 182 x 244 cm, fitted the style and pattern of previous record setters bearing the Papunya Tula stamp of provenance. Despite these stellar sales, mimicking 2008, the following years have brought mixed results, and seen the artist’s career clearance rate drop to only 52%. 2012 was a good example, with only one of five works on offer selling. It went for $10,200. This trend has continued unabated for some time. By 2019 he had dropped to 101st place after only three works sold of 12 offered for an average price of only $2822.
There is no doubt that the works created by George Tjungurrayi for Papunya Tula are favoured in the secondary market with these occupying eight of his top ten and 14 of his top 20 results. However, this may simply reflect the relative numbers of works he has created for the company compared to those he has painted for independent dealers.
By far the largest paintings that have been offered for sale at auction were created for independent dealer Peter Van Groessen and these were originally offered in the primary market through Kimberley Art Gallery in Melbourne. Yam Dreaming and My Father’s Country were both created in 1999 and measured approximately 180 x 350 cm. When offered through Lawson~Menzies in June 2007 and May 2006 they sold for $43,200 and $32,400 to set the artist’s current fourth and seventh highest results.
George Tjungurrayi only began painting in 1976, therefore it is not surprising that no works on board have appeared. However, it does seem unusual that hardly any 1980s paintings have been offered. The highest price paid for one of these was for an unremarkable stiff and formulaic work entitled Wirrulnya 1988. Offered at Sotheby’s in November 2007 the 182 x 121 cm painting carried an estimate of just $7,000-10,000 and, even with a Papunya Tula provenance, sold for just $8,400.
Overall, despite a dramatic fall in his clearance rate since 2008, works by George Tjungurrayi created after the mid 1990s would appear to be set to continue their rise in value. With a relatively low record price of $72,000 and only seven works having sold for more than $30,000 it would seem like a propitious time for collectors to look at his work more seriously. Other seminal artists who took Pintupi men’s art into its new paradigm in the later part of their career, including Turkey Tolson and Mick Namarari, have record prices of $180,000, $210,000 respectively for works created in the mid 1990s. George is still alive and actively working, and hopefully he has many productive years ahead of him. Because of this I would expect his prices in the primary market to exceed those for all but the very finest that appear at auction for some time into the foreseeable future. This should create a good opportunity for those collectors, who may not be able to accommodate the largest of his works, to pick up something good at a far more reasonable price at auction than they would pay at one of the galleries, which are contractually tied to Papunya Tula. If Tjungurrayi continues to intermittently paint outside of the company there may be many fine works that buyers, who care less about provenance as a political issue, may be able to purchase for less than the premium that Papunya Tula works attract.