May has been the month of miracles. This was the way our highly devout Prime Minister described his election victory, which arrived on the back of three years of dysfunctional government and a campaign devoid of policies. It was also the way Tony Costa responded to his victory in this year’s Archibald Prize, for a portrait of artist, Lindy Lee. “Miraculous” he said.
The word, in both instances, seems well-chosen. I won’t wade into the shallows of politics, but Costa’s win seems one of least predictable in decades. Because I was overseas during the announcement I didn’t have to take my usual punt, but I wouldn’t have seen this one coming.
I’m pleased for Tony Costa, an underrated artist who is overdue for some attention, but many would probably agree that he is more of a landscapist than a portraitist. As a picture of a person meditating it’s understandable Lee should have her eyes closed, but this is a major drawback in any portrait. To say the eyes are the windows of the soul is a cliché, but close them and the life drains out of a work, the human connection fails and a person becomes an object. It’s as much of a no-no as showing the subject’s teeth, a feature that turns any painting into an happy snap.
In Milan, while the Archibald was being announced, I was looking at the incredible portraits of Antonello da Messina (1430-79), who had the ability to convey a sitter’s entire personality in the curve of a lip or an eyebrow, or the gleam in a pupil. To return to Sydney and be confronted with this year’s Archibald selections was to feel that whatever has been happening in art for the past 400 years, it couldn’t be called ‘progress’.
Costa’s portrait is also disappointingly schematic, being nothing more than a figure deposited on a ground. Once again I can understand the idea of depicting a meditating figure in the silhouette of a mountain, but it doesn’t make for a challenging composition.
Were there better candidates for the Prize? Yes, but not many, because this is one of the poorest Archibalds in living memory. As has been the practice over the past few years the show is too large, with more than 50 works on display. The idea, presumably, is that profusion adds variety. The reality is that it diffuses interest, as most entries have no hope of winning, while the preponderance of mediocre pictures drags down one’s overall impression of the event.
There are too many teensy-weensy pictures, even though some of the small works, notably Keith Burt’s Benjamin Law and Angus McDonald’s Mariam Veiszadeh, are accomplished examples of the portraitist’s art. There is a large dose of that nit-picking photorealism that appeals to the general public in the most banal way, and irritates the purists who believe a portrait should not be over-dependent on the camera. Exhibit A is Tessa MacKay’s giant-sized portrait of David Wenham which won this year’s Packing Room Prize – a monument to patience and perseverence, but aesthetically inert.
There are ugly, shapeless concoctions by Shane Bowden, Paul Ryan and Ramesh Mario Nithiyendrian (who is so much more effective as a ceramic sculptor). Imants Tillers’s All hail Greg Inglis resembles a pin-board rather than a painting. As for David Griggs’s portrait of Alexie Glass-Kantor, it would make a great cover for a psychedelic rock album, but it could be a ‘portrait’ of almost anyone, or anything. And what was Anh Do thinking when he added bits of meaningless collage to his ragged portrait of George Gittoes “to represent the beauty of art”? Perhaps it was the compensate for the resounding lack of beauty in the bits he painted himself.
Some works are just plain dull. Jordan Richardson’s Annabel Crabb is more like Annabel Drab. When someone works so hard to be a ‘personality’ it seems perverse to pare away all the trimmings. Crabb looks so dazed she may as well be holding a marijuana leaf.
The majority of works in the show inspired nothing more than indifference, for which I’m almost thankful. In a more predictable universe the Prize would have gone to Jude Rae for Sarah Peirse as Miss Docker in Patrick White’s ‘A cheery soul’. It’s not an especially original idea to portray an actor in character (Nick Harding’s winning entry of 2001 showed John Bell as King Lear), but it’s a solid work in which a backdrop of basic black, broken by a thin, reflective shimmer at foot level, feels like a view of the stage from the stalls.
Clara Adolphs’s double portrait of Rosemary Laing and Geoff Kleem (in their garden) owes an obvious debt to photography, but the artist’s unfussy way with the brush lends both energy and intimacy to the scene. John Beard’s portrait of the late, lamented Edmund Capon betrays a similar debt, but here the paint is applied in minute cross-hatchings that seem like a penance for the Pop simplicity of the image itself. Vanessa Stockard’s romantic, Van Gogh-like portrait of McLean Edwards, is a more flattering likeness than the picture that won Tim Storrier the 2017 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize.
White shells, black heart, Blak Douglas’s portrait of shell artist, Esme Timbery is a large, vividly coloured depiction of a head floating in space. It may not be the ideal thing for the lounge room wall but it’s a skilful, formally inventive work in which the artist has combined several different methods of painting in an image of almost outlandish directness.
Natasha Walsh has also shown imagination in a self-portrait on copper, in which she seems to be sitting in an imaginary chair in the midst of a field. It’s odd to the point of surreality, but far better a controlled experiment than a stroll down the straight-and-narrow, or another blast of vomitous expressionism.
Finally, I’d give the thumbs up to Michael Vale’s Kid Congo on the island of the pink monkey birds – a suitably fantastic tribute to a cult guitarist. It’s an exercise in B-movie gothic that remembers a few points other artists have apparently forgotten. For instance, Vale has taken the time to capture a likeness. He has given us a composition, however bizarre, and he conveys a strong impression of the theatrical nature of a Kid Congo performance. Allowing for the ghouls and pink monkey birds it’s a rather old-fashoned portrait, and all the better for it.
The 2019 Archibald Prize,
Art Gallery of NSW, 11 May – 8 September, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 25 May, 2019