At that dreaded time of year when the Archibald Prize rolls around, the Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW strap on their armour and prepare to be criticised, condemned, lampooned and humiliated. Admittedly they often bring this fate on themselves by their choice of a show or a winner. The only difference this time is that they deserve an even worse fate: they should be profoundly pitied.
When I had a first look at the selection a couple of weeks ago, there was an embarrassed, apologetic air about proceedings. The unspoken message was: “Sorry, but there wasn’t much to choose from.” Perhaps it was just the absence of Edmund Capon, with his habitual bravado and sarcasm, but it felt as if the judges would prefer to go home and hide under the bed until it was all over.
Last year I tried to pretend it was a difficult choice, but Ben Quilty’s portrait of Margaret Olley couldn’t have been a more obvious winner if it had been placed in the centre of the room on a marble pedestal. By contrast, 2012 is unsettling because there really was no short-priced favourite. It is interesting to note that this dud year coincides with a rise in the prize money to $75,000, proving there is no relationship between the quality of entries and the quantity of loot.
I’m writing a week in advance of the announcement, so am obliged to focus on the most likely works rather than the actual winner. Although I don’t expect it will win, I thought Nigel Milsom’s portrait of art dealer, Kerry Crowley was the pick of this year’s entries. Milsom has painted a dark, dramatic picture that shows Crowley peering out at us suspiciously. She stands against a jet-black canvas punctuated by a few dabs of yellow light, suggestive of a balcony at night. In a manner that owes a debt to Cubism, Milsom has accentuated the angles of the face, with Crowley’s right side looking withdrawn while her left is enlarged in a slightly grotesque manner. A touch of red around the left eye completes the effect.
It’s not a flattering picture, but neither is it a caricature. It is a work that makes a genuine attempt to get beyond surface appearances and portray the subject as a complex personality. David Fairbairn’s Large head JB No. 1 (with blue ground) also aims to go beyond the surface, but any thought of a likeness is discarded.
The subtlety of Milsom’s portrait exposes the shallowness of so many other entries. That’s not to say one of those less penetrating pictures is not the prize-winner. With so many uninspired entries it would be understandable if the Trustees settled for a competent bit of painting rather than a would-be masterpiece. In that sense there is nothing more likely than Adam Chang’s double portrait of film producer, Emile Sherman. Chang won the People’s Choice last year with a similar portrait of J.M.Coetzee, and the major difference this year is that he has changed tonality from red to blue.
Although the double format has never succeeded in the Archibald, and the picture’s debt to photography is obvious, Chang’s work dominates the central gallery. It is an excellent likeness, portraying Sherman as an introverted character.
Angus McDonald is another artist with superior technical skills but no special flair for composition. His portrait of fellow artist, Tim Maguire, relies on the forcefulness of the subject’s blue-eyed glare to give the work its power. The moustache, however, made me think of some evil hombre from a spaghetti western. One can’t blame the artist for his sitter’s choice of lip furniture.
Maguire’s aggressive expression seems more realistic than the genial, relaxed figure that smiles at us in Paul Newton’s full-length portrait of David Gonski. As one of the supreme corporate strong men in this country, it’s hard to accept this image at face value. At the very least, Newton might have shown Gonski holding an iron bar behind his back. Perhaps he’s got a flick-knife in his pocket.
One surprisingly good likeness is Kate Beynon’s Lindy Lee (Year of the dragon). With such a severely graphic style, Beynon runs the risk of making all her subjects into cartoon characters. Nevertheless, her portrait of Lee feels true to life. The wisdom – perhaps the ethics – of including a portrait of a sitting trustee and member of the judging panel, is another matter.
The media has mentioned a number of pictures with a ‘war’ theme, and the inclusion of a couple of street artists. Neither of these topics is worth much excitement. The cool street artists – Reko Rennie and Luke Cornish – have produced portraits that are more conservative in style than almost anything else in the show. The war pictures, by Ben Quilty, Jodi Daley and Michael Peck are a mixed bag. Quilty’s expressionist portrait of a soldier lying naked on the ground is the kind of attention-grabbing piece one might include after having won the prize last year, and entertaining no expectations of another success. Daley and Peck are painstaking realists who would be lost without their cameras.
There are a few works that get points for their sense of humour, notably Luke Roberts’s pseudo medallion of artist and professional stirrer, Richard Bell, looking remarkably like Trucanini. Monika Behrens’s The artist’s practice, is a droll self-parody, showing an earnest-looking young painter wearing a long black puppeteer’s glove, playing with a cardboard castle she has made. Every object has a symbolic dimension but the surfeit of meaning collapses into absurdity.
Tim Storrier’s The histrionic wayfarer (after Bosch) continues a series of self-portraits as the invisible man, identifiable only by his clothes and possessions. This version is based on a Hieronymus Bosch painting, but Storrier has painted himself as a kind of gentleman explorer trekking across the desert with a load of artists’ materials. One suspects that even the trustees of the AGNSW would hesitate to give the prize to an invisible subject – or to one with a single exposed arm, such as Juan Ford’s Ultrapilgrim.
If there is case for the sentimental favourite this year then Garry Shead’s Martin Sharp and his magic theatre is a contender. Sharp, the grand-daddy of Australian Pop art, looks like Merlin the magician in this picture, posed against a Van Gogh starry night. The problem is that it is all a bit too cute and too programmatic, with Sharp’s obsessions – including a really tiny, Tiny Tim – laid out like a museum display cabinet. If one looks to Sharp’s own entry this year, a portrait of David Gulpilil called The thousand dollar bill, it is merely the latest incarnation of a picture that he has been working on for many years.
Another sentimental favourite would be Jenny Sages, who has come close to winning this prize on several occasions. Her self-portrait, After Jack, is an immensely sad image. It shows the artist still mourning her late husband, but I can’t see the trustees being moved by this study of personal grief, even if it is a rare thing to see a self-portrait in which the real subject is someone else.
It is only an average year for accomplished artists such as Shen Jiawei, Jun Chen and Wendy Sharpe. It is rather less so for Vincent Fantauzzo, whose Kimbra (the Build-up) is a prettified, insipid painting by his usual standards. Paul Ryan’s Adam Cullen is worse again: the word ‘disaster’ trembles on the tip of the tongue.
I would have said Rhys Lee had the oddest picture, a self-portrait “chanelling” Ned Kelly; but Tim McMonagle’s picture of Michael Buxton in the throes of some alien skin disease, is unbeatably weird.
There is a staleness about many entries, even when they’re not demonstrably bad paintings. One work with a bit of freshness was Benjamin Hedstrom’s Annandale band meeting, painted in a slightly clumsy manner, but all the better for it. The picture owes its charm to the setting: a suburban lounge room with a horrible green sofa, a brown swirling carpet, and other appurtenances of lower middle-class living. No wonder the band members look so shell-shocked. After working my way through this year’s Archibald, I can appreciate the feeling.
The Archibald Prize, Art Gallery of NSW, 31 March – 03 June, 2012.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 31, 2012