Nothing could make this year’s Archibald Prize exhibition look good, although the Salon des Refusés at the S.H.Ervin Gallery makes it more understandable.
After examining those works rejected from the official hang one may feel a twinge of sympathy for the Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW who had to work their way through 840 of the wretched things. Yes, they picked some duds. Yes, a few half decent things escaped their notice. But there is little in the Salon to make one believe that any major injustices have been perpetrated.
If the standard of works in the Archibald Prize was frankly mediocre, the Salon has maintained that standard. There is the remote possibility that the judges of both exhibitions overlooked the odd masterpiece, but this thought borders on paranoia. It’s surprising to note the absence of consistent artists such as Jenny Sages and Paul Jackson, who have become Archibald regulars. Yet there are plenty of other well-known painters who seem to have left their talent in a crumpled heap on the studio floor.
The good news this year is that the Wynne Prize for a landscape or a “figure sculpture”, is a big improvement on 2009. This story is repeated in the Salon, where it is the entries for the Wynne rather than the Archibald that make the strongest impression. The outstanding Salon picture is Angus Nivison’s Black Landscape/Cotton Bimbang, a brooding vision of a forest ravaged by bushfire. The artist has not given us a scenic view of the landscape but a heavily abstracted composition, dominated by vertical bands of black and rusty red. It’s a painting with imagination and feeling, two qualities missing from the vast majority of this year’s entries.
In selecting the Wynne the Trustees might also have considered Mostyn Bramley-Moore’s Pier and Ocean, although its grey-upon-grey tones take a little time to savour; and Joshua Yeldham’s Mangrove country, which is a restrained picture by this artist’s hyperactive standards. Susan Baird’s tiny landscape, Evening Walk, Hill End, is a beautifully evocative painting, although only the size of a pocket handkerchief. Could she do so well on a larger scale?
Most artists have an optimum size with which they feel comfortable. One of the pervasive sins of these competitions is that so many entrants feel obliged to paint a huge picture when they’d be much happier on a small-to-medium sized canvas.
This is painfully apparent in the Salon’s Archibald rejects. A brisk, likeable picture such as Sinead Davies’s portrait of tennis star, Ken Rosewall, is partially spoiled by a large expanse of empty blue canvas. Zhong Chen and Qiang Zhang are both victims of the urge to occupy the biggest possible space, while Julian Meagher has outstretched himself in his portrait of James Powditch. It’s a nice surprise to come across two tiny, unpretentious self-portraits by Marie Mansfield and Gerard Lim, in completely antithetical styles.
With Kerrie McInnes’s portrait of writer, Kate Grenville, it is hard to know where artistic conceit collapses into mere clumsiness. The left side of the picture is good but the right side resembles a parody of Brett Whiteley, with its rubbery, unrealistic arm and leg. This is still a huge advance on Abbey McCulloch’s portrait of Stephen Curry, which makes the actor look like an extra in Avatar. Stephen Giblett and Rosemary Wilson appear to have painted mad scientists from Hollywood B-films, while Craig Waddell has gone troppo in his portrait of musician, Luke Steele – an unholy mess of lurid colour.
There should be a special Should Know Better Award for artists such as Garry Shead and Ben Quilty, who have contributed two stupefying portraits. Shead has made Chief Justice Jim Spiegelman look cute and cuddly, while Quilty has given Germaine Greer the Rorschach blot treatment, emerging with two mangled fragments of face in the unlikely shape of a heart. Surely a mushroom cloud would have been more appropriate.
One of the strangest entries is Anne Cape’s portrait of veteran artist, Kevin Connor, who has depicted himself in the Archibald as a frail, ghostly figure who seems to be vanishing like a wisp of smoke. In Cape’s picture, Connor is a paragon of rude vigour, flexing his muscles like a footballer waiting to run onto the field. Let’s be generous: perhaps it’s a metaphor for the undiminished strength of Connor’s art.
This is a good opportunity to escape from the Salon and return to the AGNSW, for the Wynne and Sulman Prizes. Although this year’s Wynne was awarded to Sam Leach for his diminutive picture, Proposal for landscaped cosmos – giving him the coveted Wynne/Archibald double – the Trustees must have been sorely tempted by Kevin Connor’s Circular Quay. There can be few less conventional depictions of that famous, picture-postcard view of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge than this large, ragged painting. The figures in the foreground are like souls in torment, while the view itself is obscured by a hurricane. The drama is all in Connor’s mind. At this late stage if his career he is painting only to please himself, and it makes for an awesome spectacle.
Another impressive work was Philip Wolfhagen’s Journey to the Source V, which represents a clear advance on his entry of last year, when he was experimenting with a new approach to the landscape. Wolfhagen is not the spontaneous type, and has obviously spent many months scratching traceries of twigs into a pale, waxy mass of paint. Last year’s hesitant efforts have now developed a transcendental glow. He has created a sense of atmosphere that leaves the viewer thinking less about technique.
It’s hard to accept that Sam Leach’s work was judged superior to the contributions of Connor or Wolfhagen. His small picture, although an artful interblending of landscape and cosmos, looks like it was torn from the corner of a German Renaissance painting. As a vision of the universe, it might have been tempting to go with Elizabeth Kunoth Kngwarray’s, My Grandmother’s country – the best (and most labour-intensive) of a solid group of indigenous paintings.
If the Wynne represents a much better selection this year, the Sulman remains its idiosyncratic self. It’s worth remembering that the prize is awarded for a subject/genre painting or mural project, because the vagueness of this stipulation virtually guarantees an aesthetic lucky-dip. To make matters even more arbitrary, the judge changes every year, with a prominent artist usually being given the responsibility.
In 2010 the judge was artist – and retiring AGNSW trustee – Imants Tillers. This is the second time Tillers has been asked to judge the Sulman, and once again he has shown a liking for oddities, games and jokes. If this sounds irreverent, it’s worth remembering that one previous judge reputedly chose the show and the winner on the basis of titles alone.
In a show packed with gags, the best gag was duly declared champion. Michael Lindeman’s Paintings, prints and wall hangings is a clever – and genuinely witty – comment on public attitudes to art. The work is a neat list of classified ads. One ad mentions only the subject (“Ferrarri F1”); one mentions the frames (“Modern colours, matt boards”); another gives the name of a supposedly famous artist (“Ken Taber painting”); next comes a routine list of contents (“blues/greys antelopes”), and so on.
It could be seen as a slightly patronising view of the general public, or a salutary reminder that the art world is only a very tiny part of the planet. Either way, many viewers – and artists – will be disappointed that the Sulman went to such a cerebral, unpainterly work. They might have preferred a picture such as Lucy Culliton’s Rice crackers – a mass of tiny cellophane-wrapped morsels, each with a kimino-clad figure on the label. There may be a vague comment on Japanese conformism or the role of women, but this would be an unusual refinement for Culliton. Even as a gag, some will prefer the slapstick of Jo Bertini’s Tracking the night parrot, where the quarry seems to be stalking the hunter.
Believe it or not, this year’s Sulman might be seen as an unusually thoughtful show. Tillers has chosen works that hang together thematically, although the themes are difficult to pin down. Large paintings by David Ralph, Adam Lee and Peter Daverington straddle territory somewhere between science fiction and psychedelia. Criena Court has painted a figure with a deer’s head, Judy Hungerford has done one with a bird’s head. The show lurches wildly between the fantastic and the deadpan. There are not many works that seem to have been included on the score of quality, although major concessions have been made when it comes to eccentricities. It’s a whimsical selection, and it invites an equally whimsical response.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, April 3, 2010