Packing Room Prize & more

Published May 31, 2021
Kathryn Longhurst, ''Kate'

In this ever changin’ world in which we’re livin’, as Paul McCartney sang, it’s reassuring that some things remain the same. One of those fixed points is the annual Archibald Prize for portraiture which comes around with mind-numbing regularity, sometimes looking a little better, sometimes a little worse.

Godzilla has a son and so too does the Archibald. That child, the Packing Room Prize, has now reached the venerable age of 30 but without attaining any notable maturity. During the reign of head packer, Steve Peters, who ran the team as a benevolent tyrant, aesthetic niceties were not a major consideration. The Packing Room Prize would invariably be awarded to a good bloke or a good sort in accordance with King Steve’s whims.

Following the king’s abdication in 2017 Brett Cuthbertson ascended to throne as new head packer, inheriting the seigneurial privilege of a 52% stake in deciding the winner of the Packing Room Prize. It’s pleasing that Prince Brett is continuing the grand old traditions. Last year the Prize was awarded to a good bloke, Meyne Wyatt, and this year to a good sort, Kate Ceberano. The artist involved, just incidentallty, is Kathrin Longhurst.

Kate already has form in this competition. Peter Robertson took out the Packing Room Prize in 1994 with a nude portrait in which she stands posing in a manner that would not be out of place in a men’s magazine. She would return to the Archibald finals in 2010, in more conservative guise, in a painting by Christine O’Hagan.

Longhurst has made the singer look powerful and sexy while revealing no more than head, shoulders and hands. It’s the right kind of image for a more puritanical age but like all Longhurst’s portraits it feels like a assertion of identity that wouldn’t be out of place in Tiananmen Square. The artist says this is the result of having spent the early part of her life in East Germany.

Although Longhurst is a tremendously skilful artist it’s unlikely the Ceberano portrait will make the Trustees’ shortlist for the Archibald Prize. Looking around this hundredth anniversary exhibition there are some solid entries but only one that really stands out from the crowd. The obvious winner is Peter Wegner’s portrait of centenarian, Guy Warren. It’s so bleedin’ obvious – a 100 year-old artist for a 100-year-old prize – one wonders if the Trustees will be tempted to make a more left-field selection just to appear unpredictable and independently minded. If so it would be a triumph of pride over justice.

Not only would the Warren portrait be a popular, sentimental choice, it’s an excellent likeness that captures the sitter’s personality with uncanny accuracy. Besides, Peter Wegner is a dedicated portraitist, not someone who paints one per year whenever the Archibald rolls around.

If the Trustees wanted something really straight they might consider Tsering Hannaford’s portrait of Margaret Beazley, which could hardly be more traditional in conception. If they wanted straight but slightly more hip, there’s Jude Rae’s typically skilful self-portrait, Inside Out. If they wanted straight but wacky there’s Jonathan Dalton’s double portrait of artist, Ramesh Mario Nithiyrendran. As the galleries can’t get enough of Ramesh this might prove tempting but I suspect that when it comes to artists’ portraits age will win out over cool.

In a more expressive vein, Jun Chen’s Artist – Joe Furlonger is an impressive feat, partly because of the ability required to get a likeness when the paint is trowelled on with a palette knife. There’s also a camp fire in the foreground, which must be an Archibald first. I can’t recall Sir William Dargie painting one.

Without doubt the strangest portrait this year is James Morrison’s Portrait of Timothy Vernon Moore, which sounds like a story by Edgar Allen Poe and looks like it was painted under the infuence of mescaline. The sheer level of detail in Morrison’s work is jaw-dropping. He may not emerge as a winner but he’ll certainly expand his fan club. I’m a long-term member.

After last year’s indigenous extravaganza there are fewer Aboriginal artists in this year’s show but one entry is truly fabulous. Eunice Djerrknu Yunipingu’s Me and my sisters is a triple portrait in pink and blue, painted on bark. The unusual colours come from an old toner cartridge, so tradition is tempered by modern ingredients. Eunice and her sisters may not have the instant appeal of sultry Kate Cerberano, but they are probably more likely to touch the hearts of the Trustees.