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Outback Inspired

With an eye on Dennis Scholl’s contemporary Australian Aboriginal art, writer Linda Hayes curates a growing art movement that beautifully bucks the norm.

There’s a pattern emerging within the contemporary art world that finds even the most hard-core collectors focused on outsider art—work from artists found on the periphery of the mainstream gallery and museum ecosystem.

Take Dennis and Debra Scholl, for instance. Inveterate Miami-based collectors, they have acquired more than 1,500 museum-quality works (300 recently went to the Pérez Art Museum Miami) over four decades. Several years ago, while following another passion—winemaking in the Barossa Valley in South Australia with master sommelier Richard Betts—Dennis took a detour to Sydney. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, he had an “epiphany moment.” 

“I’d been looking for something a little closer to the artist, a little more outsider-y,” he explains. “But everything I was looking at (in the Barossa) was tourist art, not very good. The museum in Sydney has a significant collection of Australian Aboriginal art. I realized ‘this is what everyone is talking about.’ I went home and told Debra ‘you’re not going to believe what we’re collecting next.’

True to his word and following his instincts, the Scholls have since acquired a 300-piece collection of contemporary Australian Aboriginal paintings, one of the five largest in the United States. While the collection focuses on abstract painters who had reached senior status in their communities and transcended not only the expectations of those communities but the art world as a whole, it was the intrinsic beauty of the paintings that ultimately drew them in.

“There’s a whole spiritual underpinning to the work, which has a 50,000-year-old tradition, and that’s been very intellectually challenging and exciting,” Scholl shares. “But the reason we collect it is that it’s so extraordinary looking. You can disappear into the work in such a profound way. There’s a sense of optics that draws you in from the visual standpoint. It’s very hard to not fall in love with these pieces."

More than 75 paintings drawn from the Scholl’s collection, created between 1992 and 2012 by nine trailblazing Aboriginal artists, were shown at an exhibit titled “No Boundaries” at the Pérez Art Museum Miami during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2016. Each of the artists, including Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, Paddy Bedford, and Jananggoo Butcher Cherel, was a respected senior Lawman, knowledgeable in every aspect of Aboriginal ceremonial traditions. As skilled artists, they turned their knowledge into dynamic contemporary art. Their paintings speak across indigenous and Western cultures, a reminder that contemporary art comes from all corners of the globe. 

Collector or not, experiencing such emerging art is becoming easier across the board. “There’s an increasing willingness in America to look at art from all places,” says Scholl, “to break down barriers of insider art that gets shown in Chelsea and at art fairs, for instance, and outsider art. It’s a very positive trend.”