Although the Wynne Prize for landscape (and very occasionally, figurative sculpture) is twenty years older than the Archibald Prize, the portrait show gets all the headlines. It seems local audiences agree with Clement Greenberg, the champion of late modern Abstraction, who said landscape was “overrated”. Not being an Aussie, he did not proceed to transfer his affections to portraiture.
The only areas in which Australia may be said to have made an original contribution to world art are Aboriginal art and landscape, certainly not portraiture. We may have been present at the birth of Conceptual Art as well, but that’s nothing to boast about.
For most of the 120 years of the Wynne, Aboriginal art was not included or considered to be “art” at all. Within the past decade that pattern of shameful neglect has been turned around so successfully that Indigenous artists now dominate. The 2022 winner, Nicholas Harding, has been the only non-Indigenous painter to take out the prize within the past seven years.
For a while there was even a special Aboriginal Wynne-within-the-Wynne, sponsored by Andrew Roberts and family, but that seems to have lapsed. Nobody could argue any longer that First Nations artists need special encouragement. Four out of five winners of the Roberts prize have been APY artists.
The same is true for this year’s Wynne Prize recipient. Zaachariaha Fielding is better known as a flamboyant, androgynous pop star – one half of the duo, Electric Fields. Born in Mimilii in the APY lands, he claims to have taken up painting during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020. Fielding’s progress has been so spectacular that his entry was judged superior to works by artists with decades of experience, including the late John Olsen.
Is this credible? Of course. Art history is packed with prodigies who displayed exceptional natural talent, and Fielding is obviously talented. It’s another question as to whether it was a good idea to give the prize to a member of the APY collective when that operation – and this very artist – is currently being investigated over claims that white assistants are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the work.
This is not the place to take up that thorny issue which still has a long way to run, but Fielding’s victory, and the presence of another five APY artists in the exhibition, suggests a lack of caution on behalf of the AGNSW, if not a contemptuous disregard for a set of extremely serious charges.
It’s important to recognise that many of the most vehement critics of APY are Aboriginal, including some with first-hand experience of the art centres. It’s not sufficient to say they are simply jealous.
This issue was the elephant in the room on the day the winners were announced. Nobody wanted to mention it at the time, but it is casting a pall over much subsequent discussion of the Wynne.
If I try and ignore the elephant and simply attend to the work, there’s no denying that Fielding’s Inma is a large, spectacular picture – an explosive collection of drips and swirls surrounding four amoebic shapes, in shades of black, white and cream. Yet it’s that very spectacle, echoed in more colourful paintings by Yaritji Heffernan and Sally Scales, that I find discouraging. There’s a mechanical feeling about much of the APY work that I don’t get from the paintings of other Indigenous finalists, such as Mantua Nangala and Dhambit Munungurr, even though there is a good deal of repetition in their work.
Repetition is one of the most curious phenomena in art. With some artists it acts as a cumulative force that builds from one piece to the next. In others the reverse applies, as the life is systematically drained from canvases that initially seemed exciting. This is not something that can be proven objectively, but every dedicated viewer of art will know what I’m talking about.
Had the trustees sought a little controversy they might have considered Pippin Drysdale’s Wolfe Creek Crater installation – a group of largely non-functional ceramics displaying bands of colour that suggest the distinctive colours of the outback. The work is a landscape rather than a sculpture, but it captures a spirit of place with greater success than most of the Wynne paintings.
If there was a prize for opportunism it would go to Michael Snape’s The Voice, a wooden sculpture that spells out the letters V-O-I-C-E in the vague shape of a standing figure. James Powditch has also taken an oblique route, adapting an honour board from an old sporting club so that it features the names of all previous winners of the Wynne. The trustees couldn’t resist the gag, even if it requires imagination to classify the piece as either a landscape or a figurative sculpture. It reminds me of a student essay that’s gone off topic but deserves a good mark because of the effort involved.
It would have been fascinating to eavesdrop of the trustees’ deliberations when they stood in front of John Olsen’s The lake recedes. When a giant of Australian art has died only weeks before, and one of his last paintings is submitted for judgement, there would have been considerable pressure to award this work the prize. What’s more, it’s good enough to win even if Olsen had been an unknown.
The judges may have reacted against oppressive expectations, or they may have felt it would be merely a sentimental choice. Julia Gutman’s Archibald wiin suggests youth was one of their big priorities this year.
Among other artists who might have been considered, John R. Walker and Lucy Culliton contributed two of their best-ever Wynne entries – paintings that testify to many years of experience. Neither Culliton’s densely painted Bibbenluke, Spring or Walker’s loose, nervy Vinbaba-Yura-Mulka (Breakneck Gorge) I, could have been knocked off by an artist who only got started a couple of years ago.
The Wynne is not awarded for long service, but experience is a quality that leaves its imprint on a painting or a sculpture. Artists learn their trade over time, recognising their limitations and figuring out how to overcome them. It’s a long, gradual process of self-discovery that doesn’t happen overnight or arrive in a spontaneous splash of paint. Had Culliton or Walker taken out the Prize, let alone John Olsen, we could honestly say they had earned it. For Fielding, it’s like winning the lottery.
The Wynne Prize
Art Gallery of NSW, 6 May – 5 September 2023
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 20 May, 2023