Showcasing two of Western Australia’s most exciting non-Indigenous abstractionists, Indigenart, The Mossenson Galleries is very pleased to present Penny Coss and Peter Zappa: ‘Straight Talk’. Staged to coincide with the launch of Tali Tali Pompey: The First Solo Show, ‘Straight Talk’ offers a dialogue with the work of Tali Tali, that questions the relationship between Aboriginality and abstraction, landscape, subjectivity and perspective.
The tendency to view Aboriginal art in the terms of Modernist abstraction has been a topic of considerable debate in recent years. In an attempt to find entry points into the complex and often impenetrable meanings of Aboriginal painting, many critics have focused on its visual affinity to Western abstraction. Such critiques have tended to displace the profound and subtle cultural intricacies of Indigenous art with an all-purpose version of a universal Modernist aesthetic. As Tony Fry and Anne-Marie Willis have noted, “This comparison naively maps Modernist self-expression onto the cultural practices of non-Western artists.” ‘Straight Talk’ critiques the perception of Modernist universality and offers new methodologies for understanding the relationship between Indigenous art and abstraction. According to Penny Coss:
I am conscious of how the audience may read work by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists in situ. I see this show as an opportunity for conversation beyond identifying formal similarities. I hope the show provides an opportunity to see the conversations in their own right, distinct, open to talking, but from different positions. The way of seeing things as ‘similar’ is really an imagined construct borne out of signification based on formal reading. That is, to understand the unfamiliar by relating it to the familiar. The dominant paradigm of abstraction can only be so because we allow it.
Since 2002, Coss has been engaged in the production of what she terms ‘Illegal Landscapes’. Challenging the hegemony of Greenbergian Modernism, Coss’ seemingly abstract paintings are concerned with precisely the fissures in this universality, occupying the very territories historically denied by Abstract Expressionism. Their evocation of transgressive, personal and localised landscape confuses the distinctions between abstract and representational in a similar manner to the iconographic and personalised system of representation within Indigenous painting.
The sculptures of Peter Zappa are similarly concerned with the articulation of new methodologies for understanding the visual in abstract. In Zappa’s work, the order and nature of perception is confused and challenged through his manipulation of two and three-dimensional space. Zappa argues, “Two-dimensional language must, by definition, be an abstract form of communication. To move from the abstract to the concrete requires an alternative language where meaning is derived from experiential learning in a three-dimensional world.” Zappa’s work draws attention to the ways in which space, language and perception are joined – a lesson that has obvious parallels in the dispersed and sacred geography of Indigenous painting.
The works of Penny Coss and Peter Zappa exist on the borderlines of Western abstraction and revel in those aspects traditionally excluded. Like the works of Tali Tali Pompey, which appear abstract and minimal in design, these works are loaded with ‘illegal’ meanings traditionally excluded from our understanding of abstract art. These works not only challenge the idea of reading Aboriginal art in the light of Modernism, but of reading any abstract work as being ideologically or semiotically ‘empty’. In the place of this tactic, they offer ‘Straight Talk’. In Coss’ words: ‘Straight Talk’ is “to do with listening and settling down and having a really sensible conversation with art produced in different situations.”