Sydney Morning Herald Column

Salon des Refusés 2023

Published May 16, 2023
Rachel Coad, 'The imaginative historian, self-portrait'

With more than 900 entries in this year’s Archibald Prize competition, one might imagine there would be a surfeit of masterpieces left over for the Salon des Refusés. Yet somehow, despite the obligatory breathless enthusiasm the Archibald generates in press and public, those great paintings never seem to show up, either at the Art Gallery of NSW or the S.H. Ervin Gallery, where the Salon is held.

Mary Tonkin, ‘The shimmer of spring’s mellowing, Kalorama’

By this stage it would be futile to start wailing and gnashing teeth… ‘twas ever thus and shall be forever more. If you’ve seen the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman, you may as well go see the Salon. There’s always the tantalising possibility that the trustees of the AGNSW have missed a major painting which has been unfairly relegated to the Ervin.

There is a single significant difference. One of the AGNSW’s proudest boasts this year was a record number of Indigenous artists spread across all three shows. To the best of my knowledge, there are no Indigenous artists included in the Salon. This is not because the judges didn’t want to include Aboriginal artists, it’s because those artists or their representatives declined to participate in the lesser event. This may sound like a strange form of snobbery, but apparently they don’t consider it worth their while.

Evan Salmon, ‘Reflection, self portrait (in the studio).

It’s a shame because some of the best entries in previous Salons have been by Indigenous artists. I remember a painting by Mantua Nangala in the 2021 show that would have been a worthy winner of the Wynne. This year Mantua has made the cut, only to be overlooked in favour of a very flashy picture by Zaachariah Fielding.

If the Salon induces a feeling of déjà vu, that may be because certain artists are being included on an annual basis. Andrew Sullivan must hold the record for most Salon appearances, but this time he’s nowhere to be found. Instead, one spies new contenders for the title, such as Peter Stevens, Craig Handley or Evan Salmon – each a talented artist who is regularly ignored by the trustees.

And what of Mary Tonkin, who was good enough to have the largest painting at a recent Sydney Contemporary Art Fair, but keeps getting shunted into the Salon? A dedicated landscapist, Tonkin’s The shimmer of spring’s mellowing, Kalorama, is arguably the most resplendent picture on display – a work in which one feels the artist’s exhilaration in front of the motif.

Tony Costa, ‘Warumbul’

Some artists such as Wendy Sharpe, Joshua Yeldham, Tony Costa and Rodney Pople seem to have fallen from favour at the AGNSW, after having been regular inclusions in the past. Yeldham’s Driftwood, a convincing, confident work in his hyper-patterned style, loses nothing in comparison to most of the Wynne finalists. Costa, an Archibald winner in 2019, is much better known as a landscapist, but his painting, Warumbul, failed to persuade the trustees of his merits in this department.

Pople’s FF descending a staircase is both a portrait of his missus, curator, Felicity Fenner, and a mock homage to Marcel Duchamp’s notorious Nude Descending a Staircase, which rocked the Armory Show in 1913. Years later, in 1966, Gerhard Richter would do his own version, in a nude portrait of his wife, Ema, descending a staircase. Pople has been uncharacteristically discreet in allowing his model to keep her gear on, presuming he had any say in the matter. It’s one of his more engaging portraits, as is so often the case when artists paint someone they know well.

Rodney Pople, ‘FF descending a staircase’

There’s nothing demure about Sharpe’s portrait, Betty Grumble/Emma May Gibson, Performance Artist, in which the subject sits on a chair looking relaxed and comfortable, with no pants. This is such a cheeky picture it’s hard to believe the trustees felt it unworthy of the Archibald. If Emma May Gibson is happy with the painting it seems rather prim and wowserish to turn it down. It is, perhaps, a symptom of the new moralism that has descended on the arts like a cloud of mustard gas.

Had Sharpe submitted this work a few years ago, I daresay that not only would it have been hung, but the former chief art handler, Steve Peters, would have instantly awarded it the Packing Room Prize. This year, Steve’s inflexible policy of ‘good sorts or good blokes’ would have sent him like a bullet towards Zoe Young’s portrait of Latrell Mitchell. The picture chosen by his successors would not have rated a second glance.

Wendy Sharpe, ‘Betty Grumble/Emma May Gibson, Performance Artist’

I confess, I’ve more time for the Archibald and its offshoots when it’s approached in the spirit of fun rather than as a statistical study of inclusiveness. When the Packing Room Prize gets serious, you know the show’s in trouble.

One obvious tongue-in-cheek work is Rachel Coad’s The imaginative historian, self-portrait, in which the artist features as one of a group of five clone-like children, all equipped with horn-rimmed glasses. Although the rationale for the picture – about the New York City blackout of 1977 – is virtually incomprehensible, there no denying the originality of the image.

If you can’t have fun, at least don’t be bland. There’s nothing cheerful about Peter Godwin’s grumpy, introspective self-portrait, but this tough little picture feels light-hearted alongside Paul Miller’s Self-portrait cut to the bone, which references the artist’s decision to undergo brain surgery to alleviate symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. What makes the picture so powerful is Miller’s decision to paint his face across two sheets of paper, with the join carving a vertical line through his features. One can almost feel the scalpel.

Paul Miller, ‘Self-portrait cut to the bone’

It’s impossible not to think of this work as a more restrained, metaphoric treatment of the surgical theme David Griggs pursues in expressionistic fashion, in his Archibald self-portrait, The melanoma and the stitches. Miller takes a minimalist approach, leaving nothing to distract from his anguish.

Finally, portraitists are often accused of putting their subject on a pedestal, but rarely have I seen it done so literally as by two of the artists in this exhibition. John Klein’s Claudia Chan Shaw; Deco Goddess portrays the sometime TV presenter as a statue in an Art Deco style, dancing on a small wooden disc set in a base of green jade. As few human beings have a more throughly ‘sculptured’ image than Shaw, it’s an entirely appropriate conceit.

Jane Guthleben, ‘The Writer (Helen Pitt, journalist and author)’

Although Helen Pitt is not in the same league as a style guru, Jane Guthleben has given her the heroic treatment in The Writer (Helen Pitt, journalist and author). A sturdy, diminutive Pitt in a floral print dress and sandals, stands on a tiny platform holding what we presume to be her own book. She looks as if she belongs on someone’s mantlepiece, as an ornament to her profession.

The 2023 Salon des Refusés

S.H. Ervin Gallery, 6 May – 23 July, 2023


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May, 2023