When the Art Gallery of NSW moved the opening of the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes from September to June, it was bound to have consequences for the quality of the exhibitions. The 2021 Archibald season kicks off this weekend, less than five months after the closure of last year’s shows on 10 January.
This cavalier change of timetable caught many artists unawares. Instead of being able to choose between two or three pictures in progress, they were forced into in a mad scramble to finish one. The results are easy to see in the rather flat nature of this year’s Archibald, and even more obvious in the annual Salon des Refusés at the S.H.Ervin Gallery.
The Salon is selected from the vast body of hopefuls rejected by the Trustees of the AGNSW. With only 52 works hung from 938 Archibald entries, and 39 from 660 for the Wynne, one would expect the Salon judges were not short of options. Nevertheless this year’s show is a disappointing affair, with a lot of average work and a few obvious duds. The Wynne landscapes are probably stronger than the Archibald portraits, which may be because many artists are full-time landscapists while genuine portraitists are rare. One doesn’t have to make an appointment to paint the landscape, or listen to it complain that a likeness is not sufficiently flattering. (“There’s something wrong with that tree…”)
Among the standout Wynne pictures I’d nominate a large Untitled canvas by Mantua Nangala, Joshua Yeldham’s Yeoman’s Bay – Bird Rock, and Peter Stevens’s Mount Zero – Falling Water, although all three are utterly familiar examples of each artist’s work. Is it unrealistic to expect new discoveries and departures, or should we be content with a tried and true product?
Although by now I ought to know better I’m always hopeful that some undreamt-of masterpiece might turn up in the Salon. Instead I find novelty pictures that send me back to the familiar and consistent with a new sense of appreciation. I doubt that any artist could be more consistent than Robyn Sweaney with her rows of neat suburban houses. Her picture, All our histories is set in Broken Hill, but it could be anywhere in Australia.
Some of the most likeable works in the Salon are modest in scale. Evan Salmon’s Self-portrait (in the studio) is a painting that kept getting better with repeated viewings, even allowing for the artist’s ‘stunned mullet’ expression. Rob Howe’s small portrait of India Marks, in her Bulli backyard, is an appealing, unfussy work. Harley Manifold’s portrait of another artist, Gareth Colliton, sitting in the bath, wearing something that looks like a Batman mask on his head, might be best described as a ‘conversation piece’. Daniel Pata has joined the Guy Warren party with a solid portrait of the 100-year-old artist, but he’s standing in the shadow of Peter Wegner’s Archibald winner.
One often hears that artists have been relatively untouched by the pandemic and lockdowns because they are accustomed to spending so much time alone in the studio. There are certain signs in this show that this may not be the case. It’s tempting to read Craig Handley’s The Performer 2021 (self portrait as the sad mad clown), as an expression of extreme domestic frustration. Then again, perhaps it’s just a rebellious gesture against that great Australian masculine pastime: mowing the lawn. Handley’s clown persona is reading a huge book called HOW to MOW the LAWN, while his house burns in the background. Don’t ask me for further elucidation.
David Fairbairn depicts himself and artist spouse, Su Archer, in a double portrait born from a lack of regular sitters during lockdown. It apparently became a novel way of refreshing a long-term relationship.
More alarming is Katherine Edney’s Self Portrait contemplating suicide, which shows the artist in bed, wrapped up in rumpled, immaculately-painted sheets and in “feelings of confusion and uncertainty.” Jeffrey Smart used to say that when he felt anxious and unsettled he took great comfort in painting blades of grass. Maybe Edney’s thing is sheets.
Here’s no doubt that Chris O’Doherty (AKA. Reg Mombassa) has had enough of the COVID crisis. His Self portrait with trunks and twigs looks like a man who has just survived an atomic explosion. In the midst of my umpteenth Archibald Prize season I know exactly how he feels.
Finally, this year’s award for best title goes to Nic Mason for Questioning landscape with a pouffe. Before you ring the S.H.Ervin in indignation please check the spelling.
The Salon des Refusés 2021
S.H.Ervin Gallery, 5 June – 15 August, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 June, 2021