There must be a limit to the industrial quantity of portraits served up annually to the Australian public. This year we’ve already had the Portia Geach Memorial Award at the S.H.Ervin; the Shirley Hannan National Portrait Award in Bega; the National Photographic Portrait Prize and the Darling Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra; and now the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW. Mercifully, the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize has been cancelled for 2020. Have I missed any others? Undoubtedly.
With more Archibald and Wynne entries to choose from than ever before, one might expect the 2020 Salon des Refusés at the S.H.Ervin to be a gourmet selection. Instead, it’s the same old backyard buffet. By this stage I’d almost welcome a show of the very worst and most bizarre pictures, but this is not going to happen. The selected works are not necessarily bad, they are relentlessly run-of-the-mill.
I could virtually write the script for the Salon, especially for those artists whose works are rejected by the trustees of the AGNSW year after year, although they are as good as most of the stuff that gets hung. By now, Andrew Sullivan should be crowned King of the Refusés, so often have his portraits appeared in this show. If you like Sullivan better than the trustees do, check out his solo exhibition at Galerie Pompom, which closes tomorrow. And then there’s Peter Stevens in the Wynne rejects, another artist who invariably ends up in the Salonwith a stand-out picture. I could add more names to the list, but you get the idea.
Another predictable Salon category features artists who were once regular – virtually automatic – inclusions in the Archibald or Wynne, but are now ignored. It’s as if the judges suddenly declare: “You’ve ‘ad yer turn!” and go looking for fresh talent. The roll call includes artists as diverse as Rodney Pople, Euan Macleod, Leslie Rice, Tom Carment, Joshua Yeldham and Robert Malherbe. Are their 2020 paintings inferior to their entries of earlier years? Was the competition any stiffer?
Elisabeth Cummings, who is probably Australia’s most influential living landscape painter, is invariably relegated to the Salon. Guy Warren, who is 99 this year – the same age as the Archibald Prize – had a small watercolour rejected from the Wynne.
The moral of the story is that art prizes are at best a crude instrument for evaluating the quality of works of art. One might go further and say it’s ridiculous to imagine the best work inevitably wins, so much depends on the mindset of the judges and a host of other considerations. Having judged more than my share of art prizes I’d argue there should never be more than three people on a panel, but there are 11 trustees choosing the Archibald and Wynne. This is a venerable tradition that is not about to change.
The two judges who selected this year’s Salon – Jane Watters and Annette Larkin – have seized gratefully on the best of the leftovers, and added a number of new names. I wish I could feel more enthusiastic about the results.
Among the portraits, Susan O’Doherty’s Merran Esson, continues the good form this artist showed in the Portia Geach. O’Doherty’s style is simplistic and colourful, but nowadays she’s managing to capture a much better likeness. One might think it axiomatic that a portrait should resemble the subject, but this hardly seems to matter for a large number of painters.
As I’ve never met the majority of people depicted in these Salon portraits, I can only ask if they are convincing in the way they capture a particular personality. Daniel Vukovljak’s small, rather grumpy-looking self-portrait is utterly convincing, partly because it is so free of gimmicks and distractions.
Evert Ploeg’s portrait of former director of the National Portrait Gallery, Angus Trumble, is persuasive in a different way. At a glance one recogises Trumble as a bookish aesthete, a bit of a dandy, and perhaps someone who lives in his own world. All these ideas are spelled out by details in the painting, from the subject’s pink socks to a globe of the planet, to the teddy bear lurking under the chair, to the finger raised as if to make an erudite point.
Among the curiosities this year was Tea with Liz, by Clinton Ng, a wellknown doctor and collector, who has been quietly retraining as an artist! Ng’s portrait of another wellknown collector, Liz Laverty, is still a little awkward but has plenty of verve. There’s no need to say: “Don’t give up the day job.”
Two artists I find almost irresistible are Craig Handley and Glenn Morgan. Both might be classed as eccentrics with instantly recognisable styles. This year, they have each submitted self-portraits that comment on COVID-19. Handley’s a plan or it is what it is, places the artist in a surreal suburbia, in earnest disputation with a noisy little bird. The picture captures a general feeling of cynicism about the way governments have responded to the pandemic.
Glenn Morgan is typically blunt, showing himself with a mask, inside a tondo decorated with tiny models of the virus that resemble satellites. “This covid 19 is pissing me OFF”, he gripes in an angry yellow word balloon.
The Wynne Prize rejects are a more even selection. Rachel Milne and Robert Malherbe have both submitted small, bright, expressive paintings showing nondescript street scenes. Sally Stokes has opted for a sweeping, semi-abstract view of mangroves. Peter Gardiner has produced a dark, gothic Nocturne, in which a red gleam of bushfire flickers in the blackness. Joanna Lamb has created a bright, flat urban vista with a majestic, snowy peak painted as a mural on an otherwise featureless building. Steve Lopes has given us a desolate, World War One landscape that still looks scarred and ravaged. Zoe Young’s Crackenback, a vigorous tonal landscape, is notably more successful than her portrait of David Williamson, which turns the playwright into a long grey smudge.
I could go on listing pictures, but I didn’t have a strong predilection for any particular work. It may be that I’m subconsciously adjusting my standards downwards, as the lockdown drags on, with one group exhibition following another. This assembly line of pictures offers a useful showcase for artists and some distraction for gallery-goers, but I’m probably not the only viewer starting to feel like an addict who needs a hit of something inspirational.
Salon des Refusés 2020
S.H.Ervin Gallery, 26 September – 29 November, 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 October, 2020