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Thursday, January 28, 2010

About Dots

Vance Kirkland's powerful Dot Paintings are often compared to two other well-known "dot" styles: Australian Aboriginal art and Pointillism. Here are some interesting facts about the use of dots in modern art:

A dot style of modern Aboriginal art from the Australian Outback has emerged as significant in the contemporary art world and has been avidly collected and exhibited over the past twenty years. Many Kirkland Museum visitors ask about any connection that may exist between that Aboriginal dot style and Vance Kirkland's paintings. Though art has always been a part of Aboriginal culture, the dot paintings began in 1971, when an art teacher named Geoffrey Bardon provided brushes and acrylic paint to a community in Papunya in the remote central desert. The dots, circles, and cross-hatching of these works, formerly done in sand, signified traditional stories. What had been ephemeral ceremonial patterns and shapes became lasting images in paint for the first time. This caused controversy among the tribal members, as some images depicted religious forms or rites that they believed could be harmful to women and children who viewed them in this more permanent form.

Vance Kirkland began his dot paintings in 1964, seven years before the dot trend in Aboriginal art began. As far as we know, he was not aware of Aboriginal art.

La Parade (detail), 1889, by Georges Seurat.

"Some say they see poetry in my paintings; I see only science." - Georges Seurat

Vance Kirkland's dot paintings are also often compared with the work of Pointillist painters such as Georges Seurat (1859-1891). Seurat is known as a Post-Impressionist because he was a generation younger than the French Impressionists like Monet, Degas, and Renoir, though he did exhibit in their last Impressionist exhibition in 1886. His work is also, confusingly, called "Neo-Impressionism," a term meant to signify his method of working with "broken" color, because he and painter Paul Signac were interested in light and dark color values, as the Impressionists had been. Whatever you call it, the method they devised worked on the theory that instead of combining red and yellow to make orange, the eye could do the mixing. Seurat and Signac therefore made stripes or stipples of the two pure colors (red and yellow in this example) next to one another, trusting the eye to see the orange they intended. Seurat was interested in the science of optics, and studied color and color theory. He accidentally and reluctantly found himself the leader of what is now called the Pointillist movement, though he found the term offensive. He saw himself as a scientist with a precise system for the creation of his work.

The subjects Seurat and Signac painted were still traditional: landscapes or figures. The dots, points, or stipples were meant to blend to create a recognizable scene. This is what differentiates their work from Kirkland's dot paintings.

Vance Kirkland started using dots in his painting at the end of 1963; his first dot series was the Valhalla series beginning in 1964. The bubbled oil and water mixtures with a high percentage of pigment formed Kirkland's vision of flaming fragments initiating the birth of the universe. The density of the red oil and water forms Kirkland used in this series sometimes produced circular areas of paint which may have inspired the dot paintings.

Kirkland continued and refined the dot technique, with each dot carefully placed on the canvas with a dowel or small brush, until the end of his life. His final, unfinished painting from May 1981 reveals a bit of his process. He had already placed the largest dots on top of his oil and water mixtures, and was beginning to fill in the smaller dots around them when he died.

The Pointillism movement, Kirkland's Dot period and Australian Aboriginal art of the late 20th century may share "dots", but each has an important and separate story. We hope this brief explanation and comparison clarify the differences and enhance your appreciation of the works of all of these important and imaginative painters.

Maya D. Wright
Marketing & Membership Coordinator

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