Sydney Morning Herald Column

Archibald Prize 2010

Published March 27, 2010
Adam Chang, Two eyes - closing to open, oil on canvas, 200 x 350cm

No form of human activity nowadays comes without the possibility of therapy. Tiger Woods had to call in the specialists over his sex addiction, Michael Clarke has seen a psychologist to get his mind off his personal problems and back onto cricket. When Kevin Rudd apologised to the stolen generation, counselling services were reputedly made available for public servants who felt overcome by emotion (as opposed to their usual torpor).
It seems extraordinary that the annual Archibald Prize for portraiture does not provide therapeutic services for unsuccessful entrants, and for viewers rendered insensible by dangerous levels of exposure to bad art. It is one of the few avenues for the commercial exploitation of the Prize that the Art Gallery of NSW has yet to explore. I’d be happy to sign up for treatment at once.
This column is being written a week in advance of the announcement of a winner, and the show is as puzzling as it’s ever been. Not so long ago it was relatively easy to pick the winner but the Trustees have grown increasingly unpredictable. There is no point in simply nominating the best painting – one must take into account the collective perversity of eleven people with differing amounts of art experience.
Last year’s winner, Guy Maestri, had much in his favour: he was young and hip, and had painted an iconic figure in the singer, Gurrumul. Stubbornly, I reasoned that the painting itself wasn’t as good as some of its rivals, but this was a mistake. Their choice suggests that the ustees tend to value fashionability over skill.

If the pendulum keeps swinging as it has from year to year between big heads and full figures, the 2010 winner will be a figure. This gives us two possible criteria: fashionability and figure. A third element is size. This year’s show is full of large and very boring pictures, with few of the ‘little gems’ that add variety to the mix. This could mean that a small work is unlikely to win, or it may be that a small winner is long overdue.
Following this tortuous logic the most likely candidate might be Sam Leach, whose small portrait of comedian, Tim Minchin, is one of the few paintings that asks the viewer to pause for more than a second. Leach is sufficiently young and groovy, and his painstaking photorealism requires more hours at the easel than the large-scale works of many co-exhibitors. Minchin’s stiff, zombie-like stance is more eye-catching than the relaxed poses around him.
Another small but agreeable work is Robert Malherbe’s The Squire – portrait of Luke Sciberras. Malherbe is a little older, and the picture a rough and ready affair, but it has a freshness that is missing from the vast majority of Archibald finalists. One suspects that if Malherbe were given the prize all attention would focus on Sciberras, artist and extrovert. Is the world ready for this?
Larger in scale, and more ambitious in style, Nigel Milsom’s Adam Cullen (bird as prophet), resembles the bastard child of a liaison between the Art Gallery of South Australia’s weird colonial painting, Boy with sulphur-crested cockatoo (improbably attributed to Augustus Earle, and then John Lewin), and Picasso in his early Cubist period. Throw in Edgar Allan Poe’s raven, and a monk’s habit, et voila! Poe’s raven was famous for saying “nevermore”, which may refer to Cullen’s chances of winning a second Archibald. I can’t see this year’s ghoulish entry, Gareth at the country fair doing the trick for him.
Milsom is nothing if not original, which carries him a long way in this field, where so many artists have produced dull, careful likenesses or fallen prisoner to their own stylistic trademarks. Jasper Knight’s Bill Wright AM, for instance, is a schematic but persuasive portrait of the former deputy director of the AGNSW, but when looking at this picture one sees, first and foremost, “a Jasper Knight”. The same might be said about Kate Beynon, Cherry Hood, Alex McKenzie, Paul Ryan, and various other works in which a signature style overwhelms the sense of a subject.
One of the most disappointing aspects of this year’s show is the contribution from a familiar contingent of Chinese émigré artists. Adam Chang, Kordelya Chi, Apple Yin and Yi Wang are all accomplished painters, but their works are dutiful rather than inspired. In portraiture, craftsmanship can only carry one so far, as further proven by the exacting efforts of artists such as Peter Smeeth, Christine O’Hagan and Martin Ball, not to mention Nafisa’s Glenn in black and white, which won the Packers’ Prize. These paintings may be skilful but they are also soporific.
Then there are the gimmicks. In his triptych portrait of the performance artist, Stelarc, Rodney Pople has spent most of his time colouring-in three large photo transfers. What looks impressive at first glance is no more than sleight-of-hand. Craig Ruddy has put a lamp behind his portrait of filmmaker Warwick Thornton, but the work might look better with the lights off. Marc de Jong has thrown away an opportunity with SBS newsreader, Janice Petersen, by producing a picture covered in mindless pixellations. Of all the subjects in this year’s show, Petersen is the least deserving of willful defacement.
Giles Alexander’s The alternative ambassadors – a double portrait of professors Ross Garnaut and Martin Green in the garb of Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors – is too tricksy for its own good. The centerpiece of Holbein’s work, a skull painted in anamorphic distortion, is replaced with a child, suggesting new hope rather than a memento mori. Such a cosy sentiment only serves as a reminder of the original meaning of the skulls in old master paintings: death puts an end to our petty vanities. The debate on climate change, as it currently stands, is cause for hubris rather than optimism.
I wake up with Today! By Shane Bowden and Dean Reilly is literally a waste of space: two huge, glossy black panels with the merest suggestion of a chin in a couple of multicoloured bands. I’m inclined to say the same about Victor Rubin’s John Olsen diptych, which has all the gravitas of a children’s cartoon. When one thinks of Olsen’s bleak, uncompromising self-portraits that have been entered in this Prize, the superficiality of Rubin’s approach is painful to contemplate. McLean Edwards does a similar job on artist, Tim Storrier, who looks like a fop in an old Ealing comedy.
There is also a touch of caricature in Ian Smith’s portrait of artist, Keith Looby, although the characteristic expression and stance are well captured. Its neighbour, Kevin Connor’s Self-portrait, is so spectral, battered and withdrawn that it conveys a potent feeling of encroaching old age. In this picture, which has the virtue of unflinching honesty, Connor seems to be disappearing before our eyes.
One can feel sympathy with the unflappable Robert Hannaford, who produces a consistently good portrait every year, but often gets relegated to the corridor. His Malcolm Fraser is a strong, simple, unpretentious painting – exactly how every former politician would like to appear to posterity.
On the opposite wall, Paul Newton’s Self-portrait: dark night of the soul, is this artist’s best Archibald entry in years. An able technician and occasional flatterer, Newton has painted himself looking shattered. I don’t know the circumstances of the piece, but it is a far more convincing picture than his well-mannered swagger portraits. Every portrait entails a degree of role-playing, with the biographical details being less important than what we see on the gallery wall.

On the surface this is a woeful selection, but one really has to view the Salon des Refusés at the S.H.Ervin Gallery before turning the blowtorch on the Trustees. I’ll look at the Salon and the other prizes in the weeks to come. Every year there are a few strong Archibald and Wynne pictures that get unfairly expelled from the final hang, but the vast majority of more than 800 entries tend to disqualify themselves.
I wonder if the Archibald could ever be a good show? It only seems to fluctuate between bad and worse, with mere participation having a deadening effect on even the best artists. Everyone would like the glory and the money, but few painters put their heart into the task. Most seem to treat the Archibald as a bit of a giggle, or perhaps an empty ritual. As often happens in Australia, one recognises the comfortable feeling of going through the motions rather than striving for something exceptional. The Archibald – this old but undignified institution – is a living monument to complacency.
Archibald Prize, Art Gallery of NSW, March 27-May 30, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 27, 2010