Sydney Morning Herald Column

The Archibald Prize 2013: A Comment

Published March 22, 2013
Del Kathryn Barton, hugo, watercolour, gouache and acrylic on canvas, 200 x 180 cm

This year’s Archibald throws up one nagging question: “What’s that animal Hugo Weaving is holding?” Perhaps it’s something the special effects crew from the Matrix movies dreamt up. According to the news reports, Del Kathryn Barton, says the indefinable creature “demonstrates facets of the actor’s personality” – an explanation that raises more questions than it answers.
As the Trustees have admitted, it wasn’t easy to pick a winner this year. We will have to wait for the opening of the Salon des Refusés at the S.H.Ervin Gallery to see whether they brought this problem on themselves by virtue of the works they rejected. More than most years, 2013 was wide open and nothing in this selection would have been a completely satisfactory choice.
The only surprising aspect of Barton’s victory is that she won the prize five years ago, and the Trustees in recent times have been reluctant to go with the same artist twice. It is astonishing to think the runner-up was Fiona Lowry’s portrait of Shaun Gladwell, which is a small, nondescript work by this artist’s standards. Barton always looked likely, but Lowry’s picture is completely one-dimensional. A dud.
Barton’s portrait forces us to question what we should be looking for in a portrait. It is basically a coloured-in drawing, as much an illustration as a painting. There is not a trace of tone, while the colourful backdrop acts as a kind of hyper-decoration. The entwined leaves and vines, and the strange animal, are pure fantasy. There is no special likeness and no psychological insight. We are invited to interpret the fauna and flora as symbols, but they are incomprehensible to anyone but the artist.
Barton is a mannerist, meaning that style takes precedence over subject. Viewers either love or hate her work, and those that hate it will not be easily be won over. I can accept the validity of her approach, but its limitations are cruelly exposed within realm of portraiture. It says something alarming about contemporary taste that Barton has now entered the select group of those who have won the prize more than once.
When it’s left to a leafy vine and a big-eyed cat to tell us something vital about Hugo Weaving, we realise once again, the Archibald is being haunted by that familiar, insistent sense of farce.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 22, 2013