Suburban urbane
During the last decade of his life, Lin Onus (1948-96) had permission from Arnhem Land story-tellers to use rarrk designs in depicting his own country, the Barmah forest along the Murrary river. He used that cross-hatching as one more device in his strategy of deception, aiding his trompe d’oeil and extending his playfulness with iconographies.

Onus was one of a cohort of painters for whom quotation became a stock in trade. ‘Kaptn Koori’ (1986) includes a stairwell in the manner of Escher. The chain-wire across ‘Fences, Fences, Fences’ (1985) bent back to Arthur Boyd’s ‘Paintings in the Studio’ (1973) and twisted forward to Onus’s own dingo sculptures. Was the chain-wire a precursor of cross-hatching? Onus was often self-referential, as in his use of toas. Similarly, the lice that John Laws is picking from Jeff Kennett’s head in the Gary Foley portrait itches with the identification of sheep as ‘Ground Lice’ (1990).

Each panel in the Mosqito Series (1979-82) combines an episode in the life of the black guerilla in Van Diemen’s Land with a reference to the history Australian art. ‘The hangman’s nose’ is redolent with Josl Bergner’s views of Aborigines around Fitzroy in the late 1930s; ‘In hiding’ and ‘White Man’s Burden’ embrace the noble grotesque in Nolan and Tucker; the light from the open prison cells in ‘Wanted’ spills into the corridor to evoke one traditional way of depicting waterholes.

Michael and I are just slipping down to the pub’ (1992) is dominated by the Hokusai ‘The Wave’. If that wave is tsunami, can Australian artists ride it, or must they be dumped by the force of the foreign? The works that Onus left show the perils as well as the possibilities of that adventure, for both settler and indigenous artists. Critics, meanwhile, must take care not to let cleverness excuse superficiality.

Onus’s oeuvre needs to be considered from within the interdependence between folk, kitsch and the avant-garde that Clement Greenberg had recognised in his 1939 essay. Nothing is kitsch outside a context, just as a single note cannot be off-key. The plastic toilet duck is not itself kitsch anymore than Duchamp’s toilet bowl was avant-garde. Both depended on the context in which the artists placed them. Thus, some toilet ducks are more purifying than others. ‘Manataulawuluni’ (1990), for instance, has the visual and social sharpness of a John Brack.

Although ‘The sinking of the last ship carrying woodchips’(1992) is worth no more than its title, Onus often raised other light-hearted pieces are above being verbal jokes by the technical skill in their execution. The small ‘New Age Toas’ (1992) is saved by a disposition of shadows and the toning of pinkness from the toilet ducks across to the sandy stone.

The 1989 dingo series of carvings is not cutesy in the way of the two ‘Wax dogs’ (1989) because the animals caught in the fence and the trap make puppiness and pain part of a life cycle. ‘Fruit bats’ (1991) has renewed appeal because of its subversion of the hills hoist has gained a deadly bite with the spread of the ???? virus. ‘Goannas in wheelbarrow’ (1996) is mundane because the creatures are not different enough from each other, despite their varied coats of paint. Moreover, there is no danger. The barrow needed to be tilted so that more of the reptiles are scrambling to stay on board, as does the one along the right handle.

These carvings grew from Onus’s early training in the mass production of painted boomerangs for his father’s Aboriginal souvenir business. The openness with which curator Margo Neale treats his father’s connections with the Communist Party should have been extended to displaying some of their family’s commercial craft.

When Onus moved to sculpting the human figure, his difficulties deepened. ‘Maralinga’ (1990) and ‘They took the children away” (1992) are merely illustrative. He had not found a way to execute his responses through the use of his materials or to convey emotions within layers of his knowing. ‘East Timor’ (1993) comes closer to finding an objective correlative when a shadow puppet of death manipulates a battered doll. This group also benefits from Onus’s leaving open the question of who is pulling the strings because the death figure is from the Western visual tradition, not Javanese wangyang theatre.

Elsewhere, the use of an object to invoke an idea turned formulaic, such as in the algebraic equation of gun = murder. ‘And on the eighth day’ (1992) was Onus’s metaphoric vision of how god as an Englishman had stuffed up Aboriginal Australia by sending two female angels, draped in Union Jacks, and loaded down with toilet cleaner, a pistol, a bible, a crown of barbed wire thorns and a lamb. Onus’s explication of this imagery is unequivocal: ‘despair, dispossession and death’. If assessed by the artist’s words, the symbolism is so one-dimensional as to be self-parody. The execution, however, carried Onus beyond his initial inspiration into puzzles deserving more than can be gained through the intentional fallacy. A painting’s ambivalences are more trustworthy than its maker’s manifestos.

That the Angels’ ‘gifts’ are easy to recognise, does not mean that their collective significance exhausts itself in their listing. ‘And on the eighth day’ remains unresolvable politically only in as much as it is open pictorially. For instance, if menace is established by the black sky, what are we to make of its blue patch? Because the land is neither fertile nor peopled, what can the angels destroy? As with other Onus constructions, the viewing point is fluid, this time displaying the earth as if seen from outer space. The concentric rings that cover the land were presumably not made by UFOs. Sheep, for Onus, are ground lice, but in Christology, the lamb is sacrificial victim who takes away the sins of the world. This metonymic tension is reproduced in the awkwardness of the angels’ flight. They are not ethereal but appear to be stuck-on cut-outs, kept aloft by their symbolic task.

Onus had more success with larger canvases from 1992 to 1995, which, hanging together at the MCA, achieved a cabinet of illusions, gathering themes and devices to demonstrate the artist’s high style. The reworking of colonial imagery is there in ‘Twice upon a time’ (1992) where a reprise of  H. J. Johnstone’s ‘Evening Shadows’ (1880) is enclosed by Onus’s lighter rendering of river timbers, carved to suggest a huge frame of indigenous meaning. In this late septet, as in ink-blues of ‘Morumbeeja Pitoa’ (19  ), we luxuriate in the floating world where water and light provide both subject matter and visual means. The advances that Onus made in his multiple perspectives - cultural and visual - are apparent in how the jig-sawed panels of  ‘Barmah Forest’(1994) leave the viewer unsure where illusion ended, whereas the rectangles in ‘Arafura Swamp’ (1990) had regimented responses, a move only partly subverted by the ovalness of itsl lily pads. Similarly, the cross-hatching across ‘Jimmy’s Billabong’ (1988) remained an overlay.

Although these pictures were only a plateau from which Onus could have carried his creativeness beyond its limitations, the finest of them would guarantee him a place in the exploration of Australian landscape. That achievement, however, challenges his self-description as urban dingo, the title taken by this retrospective. Onus’s output was indisputably urbane in its humour, its elegance and its worldliness, and, on those counts, should be considered in the company of Brack and Smart.

In what sense was Onus also urban? One reply is that his imagery was never urban in the way of Trevor Nickolls with his backyards, high rises and neon dollar signs. Onus marooned even the inner city activist Gary Foley against a desert backdrop. An alternative answer would be to see Onus as typically suburban in the tradition of the Heidelberg School or Fred Williams. City-dwelling Australians continue to be fascinated with their opposite. As James McAuley put it about his fellows: ‘though they praise the inner spaces, When asked to go themselves, they’d rather not’. We still compensate for that reluctance by travelling there in the art that we take as typically Australian. Onus went bush to paint the desert and forest that Homo suburbiensis inhabits in his mind’s eye. Death at 48 meant that the self he was creating through his art remained fragmentary

This mapping of Onus’s impulses can be rounded off by recalling that all portraits are self-portraits. The retrospective includes ‘Jack Wunuwun’ (1988), ‘John Bulun Bulun’ (1989), ‘Garry Foley’ (1995) and ‘Archie Roach, Ruby Hunter and Mr T’ (1996).

‘Jack Wunuwun’ conveys its subject’s certainty that his story-telling is why he was created. The old man’s stare challenges one convention by ignoring the viewer. If detached from his surroundings, Wunuwun would appear blind. In context, he is absorbed by the world he depicts. The contrast between his skin and his red ochre field is subsumed by the integration of his figure into a multiplicity of life-forms. Out of the tip of the brush in his right hand emerges a tiny lizard, and from that extends a great chain of colour-filled being, as head-to-tail fish link into a giant snake, and plants merge with butterflies, wings mimicking leaves. Creation flows from Wunuwun, like the paint that spills from his stone palette to fill the canvas as a parallel universe. Onus portrayed the old man painting his own picture.

The next year, Onus portrayed ‘John Bulun Bulun’ with only his jet black face and hair visible, his light tan clothes acting as a ‘white’ cloak. This cultural disjuncture is reinforced by the broad black bars that drive our attention onto him but also cut him off from the traditional materials of the background.

Onus sought a way to make his 1995 portrait of Melbourne black activist Gary Foley political in more than the choice of subject. To counter accusations by Jeff Kennet and John Laws that Foley was a barbarian, Onus dressed the militant in designer fashion, yet had him bring along his land rights bike. Its presence hints at the colloquialism of ‘getting off your bike’ as an expression of anger. Foley is made as large as life but is not part of any social order, and so can offer no challenge. The faces and figures of Kennett and Laws are even less convincing. That they are unrecognisable as likenesses does not matter because Onus had failed at visualising his idea.

‘Archie Roach, Ruby Hunter and Mr T’ represents that trio as huge bright figures against an expanse of nature, with a campfire to one side. Roach is in a different pictorial and emotional space from the others and none is attached to the backdrop. They look ill at ease against the forest, intruders in that space as well as on the stage of Onus’s canvas.

These three portraits lack the coherence between figure and environment in ‘Jack Wunuwun’. An outward sign of this problem is that only Wunuwun is seated. That difference in posture is because Onus did not know how to position the others culturally, any more than he could fix himself. In the blackened tear at the top right of ‘Jack Wunuwun’ is the Evening Star, pivotal to its subject’s dreaming. But Onus’s Yorta Yorta name, Burrinja, also means star, offering a link to his mentor, but also inserting a doppelganger. In ‘Weekend at Garmedi II’ (1988), he glimpses the world upside down as he bends over, only to discover his life at risk from a charging buffalo. His motif dingo is able to live under water with his sting-ray mate, which, in turn, dreams of flying out of its natural element.

Thus, Onus’s work was in no sense a bridge between cultures if that phrase implies a safe passage. His legacy is more like randomly placed stepping stones. Leaps remain essential, and the danger of tumbling off permanent.