This year’s Archibald Prize is a victory for youth. A 29-year-old artist has painted – or rather stitched – a portrait of a 27-year-old pop star. It’s not the worst work in the show, but I wouldn’t have called it as the best. My first impression of this year’s selection was that it was exceptionally even and difficult to pick. I eventually thought it might go to Marikit Santiago for a self-portrait with her kids, which seemed to tick the relevant boxes. I only hope I didn’t put the kiss of death on this entry.
Julia Gutman’s Head in the sky, feet on the ground, is the first embroidered Archibald winner. It qualifies as a painting because the background rather than the figure has been painted. It’s also the first time a winner has had a huge patch sliced out of the canvas that reveals the wooden stretcher.
As a likeness, the portrait is rudimentary, because it would require exceptional skill to catch a close resemblance using scraps of discarded clothing. The trustees obviously decided the artist should get points for trying something different, although it should be noted that contemporary art is enjoying an ongoing love affair with embroidery.
Although Head of Trustees, David Gonski, announced a unanimous decision, one suspects his definition of “unanimous” means that once a work has been argued into first place, everybody agrees to give up their personal choices and rally round the flag.
With the AGNSW press releases crowing about how many women were included in this year’s hang, it was inevitable the prize would go to a female artist. Youth is another factor that shouldn’t be discounted, as the Gallery loves to show us how cool it is – rather like a senior citizen at a rave party.
Gutman is an impressively articulate young artist, but her acceptance speech was put in the shade by that of Sulman Prize winner Doris Bush Nungarrayi, from Papunya in the Northern Territory. Elderly and frail, it took a lot of persuasion to get 81-year-old Doris to step up to the microphone, but she quickly discovered an aptitude for public speaking and held forth for a good ten minutes, waving her arms and making fiery pronouncments entirely in Pitjantjatjara. No translation was offered.
Her Sulman Prize winner, chosen by artist, Nell, is called Mamunya ngalyananyi (Monster coming). It consists of a colourful array of small critters spread across a black field. It’s an unusual, quirky picture, quite out of character for a Papunya artist. If there’s such as thing as an appealing amateurism, this painting has it.
Next up was Zaacharia Fielding, known chiefly as a singer, who only took up painting in 2020, and was judged the winner of ths year’s Wynne Prize for landscape. The flamboyant Fielding made his own long speech, albeit in English, and then burst into song, accompanied by other artists from the APY lands.
Fielding’s Inma is vast swirling composition, as energetic as one of his on-stage appearances. It looks like the aftermath of a wild dance party in which everyone was holding ice creams. In reality, it’s a celebration of place where children are introduced to vital knowledge.
After a presentation ceremony that was the longest in living memory, if we try and analyse this year’s choice of winners, it’s clear the AGNSW is more determined than ever to market the Archibald and Wynne Prizes as cutting-edge contemporary events. The contradiction is that the 2023 show contains a high percentage of very conservative pictures. One wonders if these artists will be discouraged by this year’s decision, or if they’ll simply keep turning up in the hope of some useful exposure.
With the Wynne the decision is even more of a statement, as many would have been tempted to give the prize to a painting by John Olsen who died last month, at the age of 95 after a lifetime’s career as an artist. Zaacharia Fielding, in his early 30s, has been painting for a mere three years.
Ultimately the success and prestige of the Archibald and its associated shows, depends on the audience. If people respond favourably to this year’s youthquake, one might expect a repeat performance. If not?
The AGNSW may wish to dazzle us with statistics about the newfound inclusiveness of the Prize, but the only statistic that really counts is the number of paying visitors. As this is the one display of the year that many people make a special effort to see, the gallery may feel reassured that in Sydney the Archibald is not so much an exhibition as an addiction.
The 2023 Archibald Wynne and Sulman Prizes
Art Gallery of NSW, 6 May – 3 September 2023
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May, 2023