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ART FROM THE OUTBACK. Paintings from Australia's dwindling aboriginal population are finding their way into American galleries and museums

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 5, 1988

Los Angeles

THE world of Aboriginal art is coming in from the outback and up from the land down under. Recently the Caz Gallery here unveiled the largest collection of Aboriginal art ever shown in the US. And for the opening, two of Australia's last living cave painters were brought in to dab ashen color on a simulated sandstone wall, and show onlookers how they paint.

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Art experts see the exhibition as significant. ``This [exhibit] is a major breakthrough, because it is being presented as it should be - as an art event rather than an ethnographic or museum of natural history event,'' says Maurice Tuchman, senior curator for 20th-century paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. ``We're seeing a major artistic expression at its most important and authentic.''

Some 200 pieces of aboriginal ``sand paintings'' (also known as ``dot and circle paintings''), wood carvings, fabrics, bark paintings, and pottery were displayed under spotlights before an inaugural crowd of local collectors and glitterati, who had come not only to look but to shop.

Little Aboriginal art is for sale in the United States. Most of the pieces here are already in private collections - themselves few and rarely seen. But, with the cooperation of suppliers in Australia, the Caz Gallery hopes to keep a steady stream of purchasable artifacts coming straight from tribal lands in the desert.

Likely to fuel US interest in such pieces will be a major traveling exhibition of Aboriginal art opening tomorrow at the Asia Society in New York City. The 103 pieces in that show date from the 18th century to the present. Co-organized by the Asia Society and the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, this exhibition will continue in New York through Dec. 31, and then travel to Chicago, Los Angeles, and several cities in Australia.

Besides being the ``oldest and arguably the most significant art tradition in Australia,'' as notes at the Caz Gallery show here indicate, the Aboriginal works are compelling for reasons that transcend aesthetics. For 40,000 years, the Aborigines have used painting as the medium for transmitting their mythology, history, religion, and guidelines for living.

By means of a semi-mystical tradition known as ``dream time,'' the wisdom of ancestral heroes is transferred to new generations via imagery that looks abstract to Western eyes. To the Aborigines, however, the art tells visual stories - some secret, all sacred. Aboriginal values concerning law, discipline, ethics, even hunting and fishing, can be found within intricate designs dabbed painstakingly with brushes of human hair or grass wrapped around a small twig.

Carol Lopes, owner of the Caz Gallery, hastens to point out that much of the significance of the paintings won't ever be known outside the tribal circle, but small written descriptions of the stories have been prepared for the exhibition.

``This one tells the story of the wild honey man carrying a boomerang and hunting ax,'' says one of Australia's best-known dealers in Aboriginal art, Dorothy Bennett, who flew in from for the opening. ``His eventual fate as a tree lizard, remaining in the trees forever, tells about one of the most important ancestral heroes.''

Until about 30 years ago, most ``dream time'' painting was done on rocks in the multifarious escarpments spread throughout tribal lands in Australia's vast outback. The rest was done either on bark inside the huts where some of the country's 100,000 remaining Aborigines live or, literally, in the sand - as part of religious rituals. When the ceremony was finished, it was erased.