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

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.

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.

Gradually, a handful of collectors began to bring Aboriginal art to the attention of a wider public. Australian financier Robert Holmes `a Court amassed a warehouse-size collection and exhibited the work around the country. The international audience for such Australian films as ``The Last Wave,'' which dealt with Aboriginal rituals, convinced some Australians that the Aboriginal art adds up to a cultural gold mine in their backyard.

There has been some controversy about whether some of the older Aboriginal paintings should be allowed to leave the country, and there is legislation pending to prevent the sale of cultural artifacts. The Caz Gallery sidestepped the question by importing only works done since 1950.

As the art is more widely seen, a movement begun in 1971 by Australian art teacher Jeffrey Bardon to get the Aborigines to use acrylic paints and canvas is gaining some momentum among the artists. Also Ms. Bennett has mounted something of a personal crusade to get Aboriginal works into the world's museums and galleries before the artists are gone. She and a handful of others comb the continent's Aborigine settlements to learn and record what she can and to buy, and later sell, paintings.

``These are the hottest items in the Australian art world right now,'' says Bennett. ``It has meant a tremendous boost in income for these painters. Some have become wealthy.''

``Wealthy'' for an Aborigine means an annual income between $35,000 and $45,000, and there are only a handful of those.

For a number of reasons - the largest being opportunities for Western education - fewer and fewer young Aborigines are following ancestral traditions, and the artists among them are dwindling drastically. In the Western part of central Australia's Arnhem Land, Bennett has seen the number of artists fall during the last decade from 35 to about seven. ``It's tragic, because we're losing not only the great visual beauty, but all the mythology and religion,'' she says.

Ms. Lopes, an American who lived in Australia for 18 years before she began collecting the paintings, says, ``The elders want this art to be taken abroad so more people can learn about the culture and so the young might be persuaded of its importance. They also look at ```Crocodile'' Dundee' and say, `No, no, that's not it,' because this is their life.''

For many who attended the opening, a question arose: If the art has a religious and cultural significance, doesn't commercialization taint the process?

``All change has effect on art,'' says the museum's Mr. Tuchman, who recently spent two weeks in the outback studying Aborigines and their art. ``Life is change. ... To imagine that you can retain a culture in some paternalistic way, by sequestering it from the ebb and flow of life, is a new paternalism that many people in the late 1900s are prone to.

``But I think the more important tendency is for the more enlightened to understand that something vital is happening - of world consequence. I think the enlightened leaders I saw in the Caucasian world as well as enlightened Aborigines see it in proper perspective.''

Lopes says, ``They don't mind selling the paintings, because it enables them to come out from under the thumb of government assistance. Then they don't have to rely on a stipend which allows them to be pushed around from land to land at the government's whim.''

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