There was such a hullaballoo about the Packing Room Prize this year one might have thought that former Frenchman, Bruno Grasswill, had won both the Archibald and several versions of the Nobel Prize. In fact, he had won the kiss-of-death award, traditionally given to a picture of a good bloke or a good sort, as determined by the benevolent dictatorship of head packer, Steve Peters.
This year’s subject was good bloke, Michael Caton, whom everybody remembers for his role in The Castle (1997). Personally, I think Caton’s most unforgettable role was the beer commercial in which he admires a particularly lurid painting of Elvis, and says: “How can one man have so much talent?!” He probably said the same to Bruno Grasswill when he saw the Archibald entry.
The tastes of the packers and the trustees have never coincided, and there was no danger of history being made this year. While there have been a few Archibald Prize winners that were surprises – not always pleasant ones – it usually requires only a turn or two around the show for the prime candidate to emerge. Last year Fiona Lowry looked odds-on at first viewing and this year Nigel Milsom is the unbackable favourite. As usual, this column is being written a week in advance of the decision, so I’m obliged to take a punt.
If Milsom is not pronounced the winner, for a portrait of barrister and bon viveur, Charles Waterstreet, it may be because the judges felt that all-too-human wish not to appear predictable. The main competition is the painting to the left of the Milsom – Mitch Cairns’s portrait of artist, Peter Powditch.
Both Milsom and Cairns have been runners-up in recent years, so they have form. Milsom has another kind of form as well, having recently been released from prison after getting involved in a hold-up. He managed to win the $150,000 Doug Moran Portrait Prize while still behind bars. If he takes out the Archibald that will be exactly the kind of story upon which the Prize thrives.
Beyond the inevitable tabloid headlines it would be good news for a highly talented artist who has had his battles with drugs and depression.
As we have seen in the past, Milsom is not a flatterer, and his portrait of Waterstreet is positively Transylvanian in aspect. The lawyer stares out at us through thick-rimmed glasses, his face a withered mask. Waterstreet’s jet-black robes blend in with the background, offset by the startling white of his tie, buttons and hands. Those hands are skeletal, each finger knife-like. It made me think of Steichen’s famous photo of J. Pierpont Morgan, where the way the light hits the arm of a chair makes it look as if the banker is holding a sharp blade.
Waterstreet may appear to be an elderly version of Edward Scissorhands, but the painting dominates the central gallery, staring down the other entries as if daring them to try their luck. There’s drama and originality in this picture, even if it’s too Gothic to satisfy popular taste.
Cairns’s Peter Powditch is a completely different proposition – a stylised but remarkably good likeness of an artist whose career straddles the realms of Pop Art and Abstraction. The gesture with the cigarette captures Powditch perfectly, while the patterned background pays homage to the angular forms of his paintings. One can tell that Cairns has a genuine affection for his subject, and this may be a decisive factor.
Even though Milsom has a bond with Waterstreet, who helped to get him out of the slammer, his depiction is coldly objective. It makes me think of that moment in a Hammer horror when Christopher Lee appears framed in a doorway, welcoming his guests to Castle Dracula. You’d feel a lot happier sitting down for a chat with Peter Powditch.
This throws the subjectivity of the Trustees into the spotlight. Do they allow judgement to overpower personal taste? Do they pick a winner based on rigorous formal criteria, or simply choose a picture that feels right? Do they expect to be challenged by a work, or would they prefer a painting that makes them feel comfortable?
Kim Leutwyler’s portrait of model and activist, Ollie Henderson, Start the Riot, is so immediately likeable it inspires caution. It’s beautifully painted, has a vibrant sense of colour, and gives the impression that the artist feels a genuine admiration for her subject. Yet Leutwyler’s splashes of colour have a randomness that comes across as blandly decorative. It’s a superficial brand of abstraction that provides no more than a jazzy backdrop for a careful likeness.
By contrast, Angus McDonald takes no liberties with his portrait of singer, Abbe May, posed against a black void, her arms raised above her head. The bare torso might seem a sensuous touch, but May looks stern rather than seductive. It’s an ambiguous image that could be seen as assertive or defensive. Compared to Leutwyler, McDonald seems less sure of his subject and maintains a critical distance.
In the same central gallery there’s much to like about Kerry McInnes’s understated portrait of poet, Omar Musa, but it lacks the edge required from an Archibald contender. Jiawei Shen’s portrait of Judith Neilson, founder of the White Rabbit Gallery has the contrary problem, being rather too edgy. Neilson’s broad smile is an unsettling feature, making one conscious of how few portraits ever reveal a subject’s teeth. The reason there is no other picture in this show with any dental action is because a figure showing his or her teeth always has a slightly manic appearance. We smile in snapshots, but paintings seem to call for stately repose.
Shen has made the smile even more alarming by the device of the white rabbit that rears up sightlessly on Neilson’s lap. It makes both subject and rabbit seem feral. It’s a strange experiment for such an experienced portraitist.
So far I haven’t ventured out of the central gallery. When we look into the other rooms there is hardly anything that would have been a possible winner, but the overall quality of the selection feels more consistent than previous years. There is a lively blend of large and small paintings, and a high percentage of first-timers, included at the expense of established Archibald veterans. Curator, Anne Ryan, has provided a sensible hang, avoiding past excesses that saw paintings skied over doorways.
Among other notable works this year, one might cite a self-portrait by the reliable Robert Hannaford, showing a little more grey hair than previously, but still standing proudly. Andrew Sayers has painted an intense, sinewy likeness of art historian Tim Bonyhady that stands out in an entrance gallery that is much less cringeworthy than in the past. One might also look to Filippa Buttitta’s serene and touching portrait of artist, Judy Cassab, and Rodney Pople’s cartoonish image of Frannie Hopkirk, which still manages to catch something characteristic in the face and expression.
In Smoke & Mirrors (Uncle Max Eulo), Blak Douglas (AKA. Adam Hill) gives us a monumental head of an elderly indigenous man, who glares out at us defiantly. It sets up a fascinating contrast with Richard Bell’s subdued self-portrait, called Me, which wears a troubled expression. Perhaps Bell can see a new generation of urban indigenous artists on the horizon.
Tianli Zu has captured the ghost of former AGNSW director, Edmund Capon, standing in a darkened doorway, distinguished only by a pair by bright green shoes. Leslie Rice has painted fellow artist, Luke Sciberras, as Bacchus, in a dark mythological scene. It’s a poor likeness, but a remarkably accurate record of the Hill End lifestyle.
Peter Churcher’s portrait of his mother, Betty, on her deathbed, is the saddest sight in this year’s show. The only competition comes from Tom Carment’s Self-portrait at 60, which, perhaps through excessive modesty, looks more like a self-portrait at 80.
The hidden gag in this year’s hang has Marc Etherington’s portrait of artist, Del Kathryn Barton sitting primly in her lounge room, staring blank-faced at Sophia Hewson’s peculiar self-portrait that resembles an outdoor, lesbian S & M session. After all the riotous sexual content of her own paintings one might think Del wouldn’t be so easily shocked.
The Archibald Prize
Art Gallery of NSW, until 27 September
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 18th July, 2015