by David M. Roth
Of all the tribal practices to have survived the onslaught of modernity, few are more tantalizing than “songlines” — the method of wayfinding by which travelers recite lyrics that call out visible landmarks. Part of the Aboriginal creation myth, songlines first came to widespread attention in Peter Weir’s film Walkabout (1971) and in Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines, a 1997 novel in which he described them as “footprints of the ancestors.” A modern version of that concept can be found in the writings of German author W.G. Sebald, who, in the decades after World War II, trekked across Europe, claiming to have intuited details of long-ago events that took place on the ground below his feet. In Chatwin’s vision, people talk to things; in Sebald’s, things talk back. In both, the human imagination makes seeable or palpable things generally thought to be out-of-reach.
For five years (2011-2016), the Tacoma painter Audrey Tulimiero Welch lived in Australia where she engaged in similar flights of imagination while researching Native practices. Songlines, her exhibition at Nancy Toomey Fine Art, evokes the experience through methods that include staining, spraying, dripping, gestural mark-making, collage, plastering and squeegee pulls reminiscent of Gerhardt Richter’s. The result is a riot of tactile pleasures of the sort only full-throttle abstract painting can deliver. They spill out in 14 compositions that range from a wall-sized (48 x 96 inch) diptych to intimate works on panel and paper. The navigable paths to which they allude, whether linear, circular or fractured, call to mind Nazca Lines, the giant Peruvian geoglyphs that can only be apprehended from the sky.
For that reason, it would be tempting to view these works within the framework of contemporary mapping if Welch’s use of it didn’t differ so markedly from that of her peers. Where many artists use the prescriptive character of maps to make political or identity statements, Welch uses them as scaffolds for painterly gymnastics, ranging from wide-open and diagrammatic to borderline impenetrable. Her imaginary byways – partially (and sometimes completely) occluded by stains, gestures, scrapes and expanses of color — read as vestiges of ancient civilizations seen through a scrim of cataclysmic events. The overall feeling is more urban than Outback, owing to Welch’s joyous conjugation of AbEx-related mannerisms and the obvious delight she takes in slinging them across grid-like structures that anchor them in space.
The result is a bifurcated viewing experience, oscillating between turbulent surfaces and glimpses, through layers of varying opacity, of the forms beneath. The tension between the two is the show’s animating force, manifest in compositions that reside at the outer edge of control, each a bravura performance. Taken together, they make for a visual feast: a welcome antidote to the deprivations of the past two years.
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Audrey Tulimiero Welch: “Songlines” @ Nancy Toomey Fine Art through July 2, 2022.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.