While many of the oldest and most venerated men who began painting at Balgo Hills in the late 1980’s have passed away, leaving us to cherish their priceless legacy, one artist has emerged during the last decade who may come to be considered the most remarkable of them all. Boxer Milner, a tall, gentle old cattleman, in his early seventies, began painting quite minimal, small, rigid, paintings with linear shapes and large amounts of monochromatic dotting in the late 1980's. Growing in confidence as an artist through the 1990's his paintings veered further and further away from conventional Balgo aesthetics as he has gone on to create ever more exciting and challenging compositions. His work over the past decade, stands out as the very best the region has produced in paintings that offer an entirely different vision from the vivid depictions of sandy desert country, characteristic of the majority of Balgo artists.
Born at Milnga-Milnga, south-west of Billiluna near Sturt Creek c.1934, Boxer is one of a small number who come from the transition zone between the desert and the river country. This is Tjaru land, where the country and vegetation move from flat and featureless rolling spinifex plains to flood plains with enormous river channels and permanent water holes. Here the yearly cycles of flood and dry create swamps with abundant bird life, through which runs Purkitji, or Sturt Creek.
It is the intimate knowledge of all the facets of the river system, as a traditional owner of Purkitji, which informs the majority of Boxer’s paintings and his unique aesthetic. He re-presents this land in a way that is more than just physical - it is geographic, meteorological and mythical. His country is redolent with colours, landmarks, and a life force very different to that which exists only a short distance to the South, where the Great Sandy Desert begins. Paintings from this region have colours - blues and greens - that are not found elsewhere in Balgo art. In Boxer’s paintings, floodwaters are coloured by the white silt of the surrounding clay country. This is the ‘milk water’, which features in many of Boxer’s works, providing a geometric grid against which the rest of the landscape is represented, imposing carefully depicted boundaries of story over the land. His motifs refer to the miraculous transformations in the land and sky as new life seeps in to the flat lands; of the passage of water and the changing coloured tides; and the mythological drama associated with the sight and sound of thunder, lightning, rain, and brilliant rainbows. Colour changes represent the trees and vegetation, the red and white stones, the black soil, the myriad channels and tributaries, the hills and the contours that define the artist’s home. All this is contained within the dot and line work that surrounds the inescapable forms and patterns that he employs to portray Purkitji.
Boxer’s paintings are characterised by a masterful sense of composition and an innate ability to mix and marry colours on the canvas. Stylistically his paintings take the linear compositional elements developed by artists such as Lucy Yukenbarri and John Lee Tjakamarra, and elevate them to a level unparalleled by any other painter. His incredibly large hands paint with great control, assurance, and precision, using a two handed action that is an absolute expression of patience and integrity. Former art co-ordinator, Erica Izett, described his colour fields as ‘mesmerising and precisely articulated. Each dot is applied to the canvas twice over with a stick, so that it sits up, much like a frozen raindrop piercing water or dust‘. For Boxer, each brushstroke is measured and definite, with deliberate dots covering the surface of the canvas. While he may begin painting with primaries, the finished paintings consist of an incredible range of colours, which he mixes carefully. He juxtaposes reds and pinks or blues and lavenders, filling the entire canvas with dots. The colours created by Boxer are different to those of any other Balgo painter and at times can be totally unexpected. A self-taught colour mixer, Boxer shows an extraordinary sense of subtlety and beauty.
As he has advanced in age his work has stood out as the very best the region has produced. Tim Acker, now with the artist’s advocacy association, Desart, spent several years at Balgo Hills and knows Boxer and his art intimately. Despite having worked with Aboriginal artists across the far north and desert regions and with all of the great living Balgo artists, in his opinion ‘there is no artist I’ve ever met like Boxer. His work is amongst the most distinctive of all Aboriginal artists, anywhere. His inventiveness, the way he plays with form, structure, and shape is unique, as is his use of colour'. Acker likens watching Boxer paint to ‘watching a sculpture being carved from stone'. He approaches the canvas so patiently, assesses it so carefully, before recreating - dot by dot, stroke by stroke, in a thrilling variety of ways - the story of that flood-prone Purkitji country.