Sydney Morning Herald Column

Salon des Refusés 2022

Published May 31, 2022
Zoe Young, 'The Sisters ( black after Hugh Ramsay) (Bianca Spender & Allegra Spender)'

This week has served up a powerful reminder that fame in art may be long, but celebrity in politics is strictly ephemeral. The Archibald Prize rolls around every year with cosmic regularity, but governments come and go, and when they change, the entire personality of a nation is changed. Last week I felt I was living in a narrow-minded, complacent country in which people cared for little beyond their immediate self-interest. This week, I find myself in a progressive society geared towards the future, actively embracing a range of big issues.

Evan Salmon, ‘Studio Self Portrait’

The difference is that a new group of highly motivated Independents have entered public life, upsetting the traditional balance between the two major parties. While it’s still too early to say whether this indicates a lasting rearrangement of the political landscape, it’s reassuring to find that conservative, conscientious people care so deeply about issues such as climate policy, corruption and inequality, as to throw over all their traditional party allegiances.

The teal revolution allows one to hope that Australia is still the land of the fair go, and the success of these candidates should motivate the Labor Party to govern more boldly in key areas. It suggests we are not, after all, a nation of “quiet Australians” who will let our political masters do whatever they please with taxpayers’ money.

Craig Handley, ‘me, 13, in the landscape’

All of this confers a special distinction on Zoe Young’s The Sisters (…in black after Hugh Ramsay), which features one of the successful new MPs, Allegra Spender, and her sister, Bianca. If we look to the Archibald Prize to tell us something about the state of Australian society, one could hardly choose a more momentous subject than the seismic shift in the way we vote.

It’s an irony that Spender’s portrait was rejected from the Archibald while she herself has been ushered into office by the people of Wentworth. It suggests a peevishness among the trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW, who select the works that hang in the show – a desire to avoid political partisanship. It is, of course, a greater irony that this year’s Archibald winner, Blak Douglas, used his acceptance speech to tell everyone to go vote for Albo!

Sinead Davies, ‘The Multipotentialite (Sonya Eliopulos)’

Young’s portraits have been inconsistent in recent times, but The Sisters’ is one of her best. Not only is it more assured in execution, it’s a clever idea to use Hugh Ramsay’s iconic double portrait of 1904 as a reference. The artist has been smart enough to recognise that it’s better to portray a familiar person in an unfamiliar setting, rather than simply underline what we already know. It’s the difference between cliché and delight.

It’s still a dodge to portray fashion designer, Bianca, with closed eyes (Hugh Ramsay would not have approved!), but the simplicity of design, and the substituting of black for Ramsay’s white, works well. Allegra is obviously the true subject, though thankfully there’s not a trace of teal on this canvas.

As for the other portraits in this year’s Salon, they are the usual heterogeneous bunch, and I can only single out a handful. Looking at Evan Salmon’s neat, tonalist self-portrait, I thought I was looking at Max Meldrum. I’m unable to say whether this is a sly gag, or whether Salmon has been possessed by the ghost of the great art guru. With Michelle Hiscock’s portrait of my dreaded rival, Christopher Allen, I’m pleased to report the head is the correct size. Had it been too big the artist might have risked one of Christopher’s savage critiques, matrimonial ties notwithstanding.

Peter Godwin, ‘Last Night and Mist, Colo River and Canoe Creek Junction’

On the whole, such modest character studies fare best in this selection. The exception to the rule is Craig Handley, who is – generally speaking – the exception to every rule. Handley’s me, 13, in the landscape, features a self-portrait as a schoolboy, set in a pastel-coloured hallucinogenic landscape, with Ronald McDonald and two rosellas. I’ll leave the intrepretation to the psychoanalysts, but salute Handley’s ability to always stand out from the crowd.

I enjoyed India Mark’s micro-portrait of fellow artist Nick Santoro (who also has a work in this year’s Salon) and was pleased to see Andrew Sullivan had made it into the hang again, albeit as subject in an accomplished relief portrait by Noel Thurgate.

James Rogers, ‘Jazzbo’

Sinead Davies’s The Multpotentialite (Sonya Eliopulos), has been used in the pre-publicity for this year’s exhibition, and rightly so. It’s one of the most attractive pictures on display, with something almost ritualistic in this vision of an impassive woman holding an orchid in her right hand while dropping one from her left. Davies has illuminated the crucial details, from the face and flowers to the outline of the subject’s blouse, with great subtlety against a purple-grey backdrop.

Turning to the Wynne Prize rejects, the Salon entries usually indicate the Trustees are poor judges of landscape and sculpture. That holds true again this year, although I can’t argue against the 2022 winner, Nicholas Harding’s big bush painting, Eora, which was one of the standouts.

Mary Tonkin, ‘Hot kiss, Kalorama’

I’d be more convinced of their acumen had they found room for works such as Peter Godwin’s Last Night and Mist, Colo River and Canoe Creek Junction, a moody evocation of place in which a dark forest looms menacingly over a reflective pool of water. The setting is bushland not far from Sydney, but there are distinct echoes of the fantastic mountains of Guilin, where Godwin has painted in the past. There’s a looseness in the brushwork that tells us the picture is based on a distant memory, not plein air observation.

James Rodgers’s Jazzbo is a thoroughly musical, abstract metal sculpture in which one can almost hear the notes tumbling over one another. The piece is silent, but with a noisy, syncopated feeling. It’s static, but conveys the sensation of rapid movement. Few Australian sculptors can get so much out of a few sheets of old iron.

Christopher Zanko, ‘Wandering the LGA (Wollongong)

Mary Tonkin’s Hot kiss, Kalorama, is another eye-catching work – a snapshot of dense undergrowth in which the play of light has an electric quality. The artist tells us in her statement that the work was informed by an actual kiss, but all that eros has been transferred into the way she has depicted the bush. Tonkin has been more successful in infusing an emotional charge into the painting than Jo Bertini, whose An Unquiet History, is an assault on the senses, with its palette of acid pink and yellow. There is much to like in this work, but the colours are so hot one needs protective goggles.

Joshua Cocking, ‘The Inward Urge (Self-portrait)’

We’ve become familiar with Robyn Sweaney’s precisely painted suburban houses, and there’s no diminution in quality with This distanced life, which features a white weatherboard bungalow with a corrugated iron roof. The red earth tells us we’re not far from the Outback – Broken Hill, in fact.

There’s competition in suburbia from Christopher Zanko’s Wandering the LGA (Wollongong), a fastidiously carved portrait of a suburban house, coloured with just as much care and devotion. Five extra plants have been included as satellites, apparently ready to be affixed to the main picture if so desired.

Finally, a word of praise for Joshua Cocking, whose self-portrait, The inward urge, shows a man with a lot of baggage sitting in the middle of nowhere. It would be an excellent model for the official portrait of the outgoing Prime Minister.


Salon des Refusés 2022

S.H. Ervin Gallery, 14 May – 24 July 2022

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 May, 2022