Daniel Boyd, Untitled (PAITA), 2022, oil, acrylic, charcoal, pastel, and glue on linen, 53 × 79 1⁄8".

Daniel Boyd, Untitled (PAITA), 2022, oil, acrylic, charcoal, pastel, and glue on linen, 53 × 79 1⁄8".

Daniel Boyd

The early figurative paintings of First Nation artist Daniel Boyd blatantly equated the British colonization of Australia with a piratical heist. “No Beard,” a series he produced between 2005 and 2007, pictured the empire’s notables as pirates in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1881–82). Captain No Beard, 2005, for example, is a large oil painting copied from a 1782 portrait of Captain James Cook, the subject equipped with a black eye patch and parrot on his shoulder. Around 2009, however, Boyd developed a less didactic painting technique that has since become his signature. After composing an image in black-and-white or color, often basing it on archival or historical sources, Boyd squeezes globules of archival glue onto the painting’s surface, such that droplets swarm the underlying image. A black wash tints the parts of the canvas unprotected by the transparent adhesive that allows some forms and colors to show through, resulting in a mottled, mirage-like depiction fluctuating between visual obscurity and revelation—just as historical narratives elevate and occlude different truths.

Boyd’s recent Sydney show, “Tacit Testudo,” gathered thirteen new paintings. Testudo is Latin for tortoise and is also the name of an ancient Roman battlefield formation where attacking troops are protected by their overlapping shields. Some paintings reproduced existing sculptures of gods and heroes of classical antiquity. Untitled (FOVWMYLTTL) (all works 2022), for instance, showed the head of a nineteenth-century bronze statue of Achilles located at London’s Hyde Park Corner. Boyd has blurred the resolute features of the warrior’s face with a stippled patina of black, red, and crimson, eroding the visual presence of a storied protagonist of ancient Western culture. Similarly, a Roman marble bust of the strongman Hercules formed the basis of Untitled (ISTHWRFBML), where the robust figure is all but obliterated by dense purple pigment, while Untitled (NAACSHS) reduced the celebrated second-century Roman statue Apollo Belvedere to a barely discernible sketch buried in a black-and-white haze. Interspersed among these pictures were three mottled paintings—Untitled (PAITA), Untitled (ASUTIBABTF), and Untitled (TTSAAITA)—in shades of deep blue, hunter green, and aqua, respectively. All seemed derived from an ethnographic photograph of a native man poised on one leg before the sea with his bow and arrow raised. As usual, Boyd’s cryptic subtitles withheld information about the source image, although I was told it depicts a ni-Vanuatu man. One of Boyd’s nineteenth-century ancestors pressed into slave labor on Queensland sugarcane plantations also hailed from Vanuatu. At the same time, the thrice-pictured Indigenous archer hinted at Achilles’s death from an arrow to the heel.

The largest painting on display, nearly eight by five feet, also limned an encounter between Europeans and South Pacific peoples. Untitled (RMUFWM) reprises Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Neoclassical portrait of Omai, a Polynesian man who accompanied Captain Cook on the latter’s second South Pacific voyage back to England in 1774. Reynolds’s idealized portrait depicts Omai as the exotic celebrity he became for London high society during his two years in London, with bare feet, tattooed hands, flowing robes, and turban; his pose, too, is reminiscent of the Apollo Belvedere. Boyd’s stippled re-creation retains the grandeur of the original while creating the impression that Omai is slowly dissolving in a swirling dark mist. Was the work retrieving a historical event of mutual exchange between First Nations and British culture, or was it commenting on the “tacit testudo,” or implicit aggression, of Omai’s makeover for European eyes? At the same time, the notion of tacit testudo squares with Boyd’s own allusive, withholding aesthetic strategy, which invites viewers to puzzle over histories of colonization rather than just to nod and move on.