Sydney Morning Herald Column

Portia Geach Memorial Award 2023

Published November 27, 2023
Kate Stevens, 'The Whistleblower (David McBride, reformer military lawyer/ whistleblower)'

Has the Portia Geach gone political? That was the inescapable suspicion when this year’s prize went to Kate Stevens for The Whistleblower, a portrait of military lawyer, David McBride, currently in court over breaches of the Defence Act, having pleaded guilty to leaking classified documents that detailed alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan. McBride’s argument is that his perceived duty to act in the public interest outweighed the letter of the law, but the only material issue is what sentence is handed down, the possible maximum being life imprisonment.

Yvonne East, ‘The Drawing Studio (self-portrait)’

The treatment of whistleblowers goes to the heart of power, politics and justice in this country, and McBride is already a cause célèbre. Photographer, Hoda Afshar has devoted an entire series to whistleblowers, including McBride. For doing what they believe to be right, these people have been sacked, villified and prosecuted, while actual wrongdoers have often been treated lightly. Their cases have exposed a glaring gap between what is moral and ethical, and what is narrowly “legal”. They should be heroes but are treated as villains.

For all that, Jane Watters, director of the S.H.Ervin and co-judge of the award, says there was no political motivation in choosing the McBride portrait. It was simply felt to be the best entry – which may be perfectly true, but it’s probably the only permissable answer.

It’s far too common nowadays for curators to take partisan political stances with works included in exhibitions and public collections when they should be striving for an ideal objectivity. The ‘committed’ stance may be good for one’s self-esteem but it’s bad for the overall health of an institution. Much of the “justice” pursued by politically motivated curators will eventually be exposed as an injustice – a form of wilful blindness that rewards conformity and mediocrity.

Joanna Braithwaite,
‘Twists and Turns – portrait of Ildiko Kovacs
(artist, painter)’

By insisting Kate Stevens won on artistic rather than political merit, Watters directs us back to the work itself, a portrait of an imposing figure, well-muscled and tattooed, who looks as if he would never take a backward step. It’s the second panel, featuring an anonymous soldier and a puff of smoke in the desert, that disappoints. Obviously based on a photograph, it provides the vaguest of references to the incidents in Afghanistan that got McBride into trouble. It’s always hard to pull off a two-panelled work, and in this instance the connections are too tenuous.

Stevens is a proficient portraitist, with a long-held commitment to themes of war and conflict, but she may consider herself lucky to have triumphed over some of the other entries in a remarkably consistent field.

The stand-out, for me at least, was Yvonne East’s The Drawing Studio (self-portrait), in which the artist places herself at the front of the painting, staring out intently. In her right hand she holds pencil to sketchbook, as if she is drawing us while we look at the painting. In the background, seven of her students are labouring over their own drawings.

Jane Guthleben,
‘Leila and the baby king (Leila Jeffreys, photographic artist)’

All these students are young women, suggesting a clear parallel with Emanuel Phillips Fox’s iconic painting, The Art Students (1895), in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW. It was one of the curiosities of the era that most art students were women but very few of them went on to become practising artists. Waylaid by marriage and motherhood they took on domestic obligations that left little time for art, although the major obstacle may have been a chauvinistic belief that women artists were mere hobbyists. There could hardly be a more appropriate reference for a women’s art prize.

East’s painting is both a celebration of female artists and a defence of drawing, historically accepted as the foundation of all artistic achievement, but now too easily ignored by students eager to sample the ‘cutting edge’ stuff. It also lies at the heart of the artist’s preferred brand of patient realism, exemplified by careful composition and the precise balancing of tones and contrasts. The focus on her own blonde hair and black outfit puts East firmly at the centre of the picture, the teacher in the midst of her charges.

Lynn Savery,
‘Tim Draxl (actor)’

Another stand-out is Joanna Braithwaite’s Twists and Turns – portrait of Ildiko Kovacs – a good, if not quite perfect likeness of a friend and fellow artist. The power of the work owes everything to Braithwaite’s bravura approach to colour. She reproduces two of Kovacs’s looping abstractions in green and orange as a backdrop for the figure of the artist dressed in a pink blouse and a long skirt with stripes of orange, cream and brown. Nothing else in the exhibition is so dynamically conceived. One curious aspect is that Kovacs’s paintings display a greater depth than her skirt, which has a two-dimensional appearance. This visually unsettling detail is anchored by Kovacs’s dog, Jasper, who feels reassuringly realistic.

There’s a surprising amount of wildlife in this year’s show. In Evi and Henri, Leanne Xiu Williams has painted designer, Evi O, with her whippet. Sophie Hann has painted herself with two cockatoos. Caroline Thew has portrayed Annabelle Warren with a chook under her arm. Rachel Robb exchanges gazes with a tiny bird, within an inexplicably lurid pink frame; while Jane Guthleben shows photographer, Leila Jeffreys, sharing a tiny slab of ice with a baby penguin. If I had to judge this prize purely in terms of birds and animals, it’d be hard to go past the penguin.

Kathrin Longhurst,
‘Icon-ic (Bianca Spender, fashion designer)’

Lynn Savery, who won last year’s Portia Geach, is back with a scary portrait of actor, Tim Draxl, whose face looms out of the darkness, leaving his eyes wreathed in shadow. It may not be quite as disturbing as Kathrin Longhurst’s triptych of fashion designer, Bianca Spender, which features three separate haloes – taking the subject’s support for good causes a little too far. If Draxl is no demon, surely Spender is no saint.

There are pleasing, smaller pictures such as Gina Bruce’s Ann Thomson painting, Michelle Hiscock’s The Listener (Christopher Lawrence), and India Mark’s Self-portrait in blue; along with indisputably strange ones, notably Rebecca Armstrong’s image of veteran costumier, Rose Chong, wearing a kind of green burlesque bra, or Michelle Zuccolo’s mesmerised self-portrait with hand-held puppets. The strangest of all may be Deborah Walker’s surreal image of comedian, Judith Lucy, asleep, her head resting on a book, at a table bathed in an eerie green glow. I don’t know why all the unusual pictures seem to come from Melbourne. It must be something in the water.

Sassy Park, ‘Shirley (Shirley Barrett, writer/ director)’

To be fair, not all the weirdness originates down south. Two artists who have tried to stretch the boundaries of portraiture are Claire Martin (Newcastle) and Sassy Park (Randwick). The former, has created an imaginary portrait of herself as a grandmother, amid her own grandmothers and memories of the statue of Marguerite d’Anjou in the Luxembourg Gardens. The only problem is that no-one could figure this out if they hadn’t read the artist’s statement.

Park has crafted an imaginative homage to her friend, writer and filmmaker, Shirley Barrett, who died of breast cancer last year. On a piece of baked clay, looking like a tablet retrieved from a plundered tomb, we see Barrett reclining on a chaise longue, holding a mirror. A little dog stares at her eagerly from the floor, a blue silhouette holding a bird and a piece of fruit looms over her shoulder. The chair looks like it might be on wheels, while an angel shines a beam of light from above. Oh, and there’s a large, disembodied eye as well. It’s rare to see a memorial to the dear departed so devoid of gloom and despondency. Park seems to agree with the ancient Egyptians that death is merely the stepping stone to a much better party.



Portia Geach Memorial Award

S.H. Ervin Gallery, 3 November – 17 December 2023


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 25 November, 2023