Laura Jones is the Winner

Published June 8, 2024
And the winner is... 'Tim Winton' by Laura Jones

This year’s Archibald Prize announcement will remain etched in my memory for the peculiar way one of the speakers pronounced the name of the venue. Forget about “Naala Badu”, from now on I shall always think of the place as the Art Gallery of Nudist Whales. The other striking memory will be director, Michael Brand, dressed in a high-collared jacket the Indians call a bandi, that suggested he was celebrating Narendra Modi’s re-election. Ah, the Archibald! It’s always full of surprises.

The least surprising aspect of the whole affair is the show itself. Hyped to the skies as usual, it’s as lacklustre as any year I can remember. When I hear people droning on about the Archibald as a great Aussie tradition, I think yes, like ringbarking or yabby racing. There are too many gimmick pictures, too many poorly painted ones. Despite a good percentage of realist works, produced with near-photographic accuracy, it’s extremely unlikely any of them were contenders. It would have sent a discouraging message that the trustees were prepared to give the prize to the best picture. Hands up, Angus McDonald and Tsering Hannaford.

The pleasing part about Laura Jones’s victory is that it signifies a return to the quaint, old-fashioned notion that a portrait should be a good likeness which captures something of the sitter’s personality. Last year’s winner, Julia Gutman’s portrait of singer, Montaigne, was a gimmick work that had more to do with the trustees’ desire to give the prize to a young artist.

The same obsession was in evidence this year, as outgoing Chairman, David Gonski, proudly announced a record number of first-timers in the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman, and waited for a round of applause – which never came. The fact is, for most people it probably doesn’t matter if the shows are full of first-timers or veterans; young ‘uns or oldies; boys, girls or others; black artists, white ones or Martians. All they want is to see the best works available. The statistics are a mere distraction and might even exert a negative influence on selections, as experienced artists are rejected in favour of new blood.

Laura Jones, who turns 42 this year, is not exactly a young artist, but neither is she is ready for her seniors card. She’s in her prime.

Jones is, by nature, a sloppy, expressive painter, whose work can be hit-or-miss. Her Tim Winton is a palpable hit, perhaps because the subject is a shapeless, sloppy figure himself. One rarely sees Winton in anything but a T-shirt, and he’s not known to frequent the celebrity hairdressers. Jones says the novelist acts as if he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, and she has caught this in the portrait. Winton looks maudlin, in the way he often comes across in photos. The background, which has been dashed in any-old-how, concentrates our attention squarely on the subject. He may look like a beach bum, but there’s an undeniable intensity to this bloke.

I wish I could find as many redeeming features in the other portraits, but the Goldilocks Effect is very much in force, with some artists trying too hard, others not trying at all.

As for the other Prizes, the Sulman, chosen this year by young tyro, Tom Polo, is the predictable dog’s morning repast, with a winner not all that different from last year, Naomi Kantjuriny having painted a lot of little figures on a black background.

The 2024 Wynne Prize for landscape, according to David Gonski, includes two-thirds first-timers, and a majority of Aboriginal artists – which underlines the reason so many of Australia’s best landscapists are declining to enter the competition nowadays. They feel they haven’t got a chance. That may be true, but this year, at least, Djakanu Yunupingu’s Nyalala gurmilili was an obvious, stand-out winner. Her homeland, Yirrkala, in Arnhem Land, is a culture factory that keeps turning out amazing artists.

I hope I haven’t been too discouraging about this year’s shows. The Archibald is always a financial bonanza, and and in times of debt, straitened budgets, and an unsympathetic government paymaster, the Art Gallery of Nudist Whales needs your money more than ever.


Archibald, Wynne & Sulman Prizes 2024

Art Gallery of NSW, 8 June – 8 September 2024


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 June, 2024