If Friedrich Nietzsche hadn’t come up with his theory of the Eternal Return in the late 19th century, a few visits to the Salon des Refusés at the S.H.Ervin Gallery would have planted the idea in the mind of any latter-day philosopher. For Nietzsche the thought that everything in life would repeat on an endless cycle was “the heaviest weight” a human being could bear. A similar thought might have occurred to Andrew Sullivan or Marie Mansfield, as they found themselves rejected once again from the Archibald Prize, or to Ross Laurie, as he added to his string of knock-backs from the Wynne.
Year after year the same artists get relegated to the Salon, regardless of the quality of their work or the conspicuous lack of quality displayed by many of the chosen finalists. It makes me wonder if the Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW, who decide what gets hung in the Archibald and Wynne Prizes, ever make it to the S.H.Ervin to sample the secondary show. It should be an obligatory visit, if only to see whether they made the right calls.
In a year when the Archibald has been deemed underwhelming and the Wynne is dominated, for the third year in succession, by paintings from the Central and Western Deserts, one wonders what goes through the trustees’ minds. They are equally blinkered in what they accept as to what they reject. The only variation is when an artist who has been accepted on multiple occasions gets inexplicably rejected, then seems destined to linger in the Salon forever after. This may be the fate of painters such as Wendy Sharpe, Rodney Pople and Kate Beynon, who are represented by portraits that lose nothing alongside many of those that made the cut.
It’s hard to imagine any of the portraits in the Salonas Archibald winners, but the same might be said about most of the finalists, including the painting that took out the prize for Tony Costa. While they may have liked his portrait the trustees rejected a landscape painting by Costa – Hacking River Audley RNP, which has landed in the Salon. A raw, vigorous work on paper, it has qualities that are missing from his Archibald Prize winner.
The trustees showed themselves to be fiercely unsentimental in their choices this year. They preferred to hang a few large, in-yer-face monstrosities rather than Andrew Lloyd Greensmith’s double portrait of twin sisters that survived the Holocaust, or even Helene Grove’s picture of herself and her old cat. Neither were they touched by the thought that Parker’s Sydney Fine Art Supplies is celebrating its hundredth birthday. Two portraits of proprietor, Derek Parker, by McLean Edwards and Lily Stromland respectively, ended up at the S.H.Ervin.
Roger Covell and the Song of the Magpie by the ever-unlucky Andrew Sullivan, is another painting that invokes a degree of sympathy, as it shows the renowned musicologist in old age, confined to a hospice. It’s an excellent likeness and a skilful piece of painting – qualities that shouldn’t be dismissed. It also depicts a genuinely distinguished Australian, unlike the wannabees that crowd out every Archibald. The picture within the picture, of a magpie singing, is a wry nod to Australian music.
The central wall of the this year’s Salon features three works that would look good anywhere: Ross Laurie’s Dry Red Rams Gully, Peter Stevens’s River, and Elisabeth Cummings’s Yellow interior (presumably the interior of Australia). Laurie and Stevens are virtual fixtures in the Salon, but they are among the most original contemporary landscapists in this country. For many people, Cummings is an iconic figure, but this view is obviously not shared by those who select the Wynne Prize.
If innovation counts for anything Louis Pratt should have stayed in the Wynne for Regret, a figure made out of coal, fibreglass, resin and steel. It’s tricksy, like most of Pratt’s recent work, but coal, once the most common of substances, has taken on a sinister dimension since we started worrying about global warming. Pratt seems to be suggesting that unless we get serious about climate change the future of flesh may well be carbon – which won’t do a lot for jobs in Queensland.
With this year’s main attractions at the AGNSW being so disappointing, I dreaded what I’d find at the S.H.Ervin, but selectors, Jane Watters and Brian Langer have put together a lively, consistent show. It may be partly due to arriving with diminished expectations, but for the most part this year’s Salon was a pleasant surprise.
One reason is the obvious care that has been taken with the hanging in creating dialogues between works. Perhaps the best juxtaposition puts Angus Nivison’s vigorous ink-on-paper abstraction, Strategy, alongside a black-and-white bark painting by Napuwarri Marawili, Tsunami site at Yathikpa. Stylistically the works are poles apart, but they share a tremendous, elemental energy. Not far away is another powerful black-and-white work by Peter Gardiner, Et in arcadio ego (Inherited landscape), which looks like a village in the jungle after Marawili’s tsunami has swept through.
Two of the largest, most accomplished portraits are Kerrie McInnes’s Drawn in Steel (Harrie Fasher) (sculptor), and Cameron Potts’s The Moment– an elaborate homage to Tame Impala frontman, Kevin Parker.
All these artists, from Nivison to Potts, may consider themselves unfortunate to miss out on the main show. It only serves to emphasise how arbitrary are the ways of art prizes, which depend so heavily on the disposition of the judges. To win something is an incredible experience, but for many artists the disappointments are crushing. One has to cultivate a Buddhistic detachment, being prepared to accept whatever occurs. In this sense, Tony Costa’s portrait of a meditating Lindy Lee is emblematic of the right art prize attitude.
The main benefit of any prize is visiblity: the chance to have one’s work seen at a major venue by a large audience. Such exposure is getting more and more valuable in an art market in which the number of commercial galleries is steadily contracting. So while we may rightfully groan about the quality of these shows, Australian art would be poorer without them. They are one of the last manifestations of that egalitarian spirit we see as intrinsic to this country. That spirit may be no more than a myth, but it’s the privilege of art to improve on reality.
Salon des Refusés 2019
S.H.Ervin Gallery, 11 May, 2019 – 28 July
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 June, 2019