Romantic, unbowed, idealistic, Dallas Gold, the animateur of Raft Artspace, believes with all his heart that painting can effect change: that coloured brush-marks on canvas can tilt the mind, and produce consequences. This belief – a kind of delirium, an optimistic madness – has been with him since he first set up his gallery in Darwin some seven years ago. A passion has been lurking beneath his calm, faintly disabused manner: a love of paint, and its transforming properties; a love both for what paint is and what it can show of the world. Hence this exhibition: an anniversary event of sorts, after a hundred 100 Raft shows, and a systematic exploration of the visual traditions and imagined landscapes of the North. Gold is setting out, in “PAINT,” not just a manifesto, or a display of his own well-hidden preferences in art, but a tribute: a love song to the medium he chose as his own channel of expression long ago. Here, in hanging the work of four spectacular artists alongside each other, Gold is also embarking on an experiment. Certainly no one has ever exhibited these painters together. They have their very obvious parallels and differences, but those aspects of the works are secondary here: this is not a polemical show, or even a theory-based one. It is a simple test: how will these canvases speak to each other when shown in the same space? Gold is embarking, then, on an aesthetic investigation:

“After having so many shows,” he muses, “and looking closely at so much work, and above all seeing so much indigenous art, displaying it and living closely with it on these walls for so long has taught me how important it is for makers of art to stay true to their culture. I looked, too, over those years, at non-indigenous art, and began to see how a good painting, a painting of integrity will hold together with another painting of integrity – from whatever tradition. You see this in the houses of the great collectors: you see a dialogue opening up. Certain works sit very comfortably with other pieces from very differing traditions, and evoke a similar response.”

This newest inflection in Raft’s journey, in the wake of its early days of deliberate efforts at cross-cultural co-operation, suggests a broadening of Gold’s program: a settling into the rhythm of gallery inquiries – a form of investigation which is itself a divination, an art.

“I’m not comparing traditions,” Gold contends: “I’m not saying indigenous art is like abstraction: it’s what the work does, and brings out, that I want to see.”

The four artists in “PAINT” have their own procedures. Makinti Napanangka is probably the best-known artist in the Papunya Tula school: but very little is known of what she seeks to convey. Her pieces depict specific subjects drawn from the Tjukurrpa, yet also seem to show the look and pattern of deep desert. Eubena Nampitjin’s canvases over the past ten years have been free in form, yet precise in content: they show, almost always, the sand-dune landscape round Well 33 in the Great Sandy desert – but they show it in an emotional evocation as much as in a topographic sketch. Ildiko Kovacs has looked long and hard at the colour field painters of Jirrawun in the East Kimberley, whose visual grammar, independently developed, so strongly resembles hers; but her Central European background also points to the mystical strains in modernism that were first set in motion by Malevich, Kliun and even Mondrian. Aida Tomescu’s Romanian background encourages the viewer to link her paint-laden panels to the Fauve experiments of a century ago, or to east European expressionist schools: but her sense of what art can be – emotional transcription of place and state – seems as important as any overt pictorial influence.

Gold brought them together because he loved them. He believed they were linked by a particular approach, a sensuous love of paint, an intensity.

But he also had a suspicion about the life cycle of desert artists, and the evolution in their work: an intuition, born of years of following and loving Makinti and Eubena, and watching the changes in their use of paint. He felt that indigenous artists of traditional background begin their careers in strict depictions of country or law: they paint in rigid fashion. Only later, after years of practice, and increased proficiency, do they free themselves – to such a degree that paint becomes their secret, special language of expression, a language Gold himself feels, rather than understands, a language that seems laid down in organic fashion by the thick strokes of the brush. And the European artists here? Aida and Ildiko: they have their freedom; they have so much freedom in the western tradition they almost seem to have no rules confining them at all. Yet, as if they had subjected themselves to invisible protocols, their paintings are as succinct as formulas: they distil and concentrate the world: their work aspires to the essential rather than the arbitrary.

Gold has his own ideas about the attributes that most catch his eye: paint, its lustre, its shimmer, and the skill and grace that lies in the sheer performance of making art. But I suspect there is another factor that shapes his choice: what he loves most is beauty, and so he has brought together four painters who paint beauty. And beauty, these days, has many strikes against it. In the modern world, in fact, beauty is suspect, it is dangerous, it is rare. It is, if we are to speak the truth, the enemy: it represents the art of faith, and privilege, of aestheticism and tradition. It has been associated with all these things, but it is none of them. It is the true subject of this exhibition: an exhibition of works that explore beauty in colour and form, while skirting the beauty and delight that lies in representation.

It is unclear whether the four artists regard this element as a key to their work. It would be vulgar to even suppose there might be a key, or meaning to such art: that is beauty’s saving grace: its meaning is in itself, and not beyond. Must art have a key for us to decode what waits before our gaze? It is always something more than what the maker intends: it is completed by the viewer’s eye, and the mind’s touch. It reaches its destination down obscure, half-overgrown paths. And what is it that makes a painting beautiful? That rests in the combination of the paint itself and the viewing eye, in the curating and in the setting almost as much as in the creation. A painting of beauty exists for the strangeness and the rightness of its beauty to be seen, and for that emotion to travel across the frontiers of the self. It is in that marriage of art and viewer that the magic of “PAINT” resides. And this is the true subject of the alchemy Gold, in his hundredth exhibition, seeks both to perform and probe.

Nicholas Rothwell