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Sydney Morning Herald Column

Salon des Refusés 2024

Published June 30, 2024
Mantua Nangala, 'Untitled'

This year, it’s the proud boast of the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW, that “for the first time there are more works by Aboriginal artists than non-Aboriginal artists.” Surely it’s entirely inappropriate to celebrate a preponderance of one group over another when it’s the artists’ work, not their ethnicity that is being exhibited. With any art competition, let alone one as important as the Wynne, there should be a cast-iron commitment to judging works on merit. This piece of corporate virtue signalling sends out a discouraging message to non-Aboriginal landscape painters, who are already beginning to abandon the Prize.

Mary Tonkin, ‘A Scream, Kalorama’

Jane Watters, the director of the S.H. Ervin Gallery, which is hosting the annual Salon des Refusés, says she was surprised this year that so many regular participants in the Wynne were absent. Having spoken to a group of artists at an opening recently, I found a growing body of opinion that it was no longer worthwhile putting a work into the Prize.

What makes the AGNSW’s boast even more ridiculous is that the two standout paintings in this year’s Salon were both rejected from the Wynne. One of them, an Untitled work by Mantua Nangala, is so palpably superior to everything in the Wynne, with the exception of this year’s winner, Djakangu Yunipingu’s Nyalala gurmilili, that it makes a mockery of the selection. Why congratulate yourselves on how many Aboriginal artists you’ve included in the show when you’ve thrown out one of the very best Aboriginal paintings?

The obsession with self-gratifying statistics does no favours to Djakangu’s winning work, which struck me – and everybody else I spoke with – as the outstanding piece in the exhibition. The AGNSW should not be allowing any suspicion that the work benefited from some kind of ideological agenda.

Noel Thurgate, ‘Ann Thomson’

Had Mantua’s elegant, complex painting made the cut, it would have provided serious competition for Djakangu. Instead, the show was crammed with pieces that barely warranted a second glance. The trustees seem to have a blind spot in regards to this exceptional artist, as it’s not the first time she has been rejected.

The other artist who can count herself unlucky is Mary Tonkin, whose large, four-panelled painting, A scream, Kalorama, shows a dark, explosive mass of roots where tall trees have been wrenched out of the ground. An intimate view of the forest with overtones of expressionist agony, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. As opposed to those artists who ‘knock off’ a landscape for the Wynne or a portrait for the Archibald, Tonkin is a dedicated landscapist who finds almost all her subject matter in a small corner of the Dandenongs.

The trustees would probably argue that the work was too large to be included, but there’s a good argument for putting in one excellent work rather than two or three mediocre ones.

Evan Salmon, ‘Studio interior, reflection (self-portrait)’

There are other pictures in the Salon that might have slotted into the Wynne Prize more comfortably than some of the official selections, but nothing that comes close to the works by Mantua or Tonkin.

When one looks at the rejects from the Archibald Prize, few portraits suggest a serious miscarriage of justice. I’ve long gotten over the fantasy that a poor year at the Archibald means the Salon will be full of wonders. It’s usually just more of the same. The selections for AGNSW and the S.H. Ervin shows are only as good as the quality of the entries, and this is a lacklustre year.

Of the Salon works, Noel Thurgate’s Portrait of Ann Thomson is one of the standouts. Although he is a consummately skilful draftsman, when attempting a major painting Thurgate feels the need to try a few tricksy things, if only to provide a ‘contemporary’ edge. In this picture, an artfully carved and textured panel doesn’t detract from the strength of the portrait, which captures Thomson’s character and confidence, as a painter who has just turned 90 but is still going strong.

Joanna Braithwaite, ‘Memory Lane’

Another painting that deserves a serious look is Evan Salmon’s Studio interior, reflection (self-portrait). As self-portraits go it’s almost aggressively modest. Salmon has painted a tiny version of his own face, captured in a mirror, within a detailed interior view of the studio. Even in reflection, the face is turned to one side, as if Salmon would prefer not to be noticed, asking us to consider the art, not the artist.

Paul Miller, ‘I Am Still (Self-Portrait)’

It could be argued that the actual portrait is too small for the work to warrant inclusion in the Archibald, but Noel McKenna has just picked up the Darling Prize at the National Portrait Gallery, for a painting in which the subject, Bil Nuttall, is but a tiny figure, posing with his horses in a landscape. Today the definition of portraiture has been expanded so far the boundaries are no longer visible. In art competitions this places an extra emphasis on the judges’ subjectivity, which is where the trouble usually begins.

The best reason the Archibald judges might have had for omitting Joanna Braithwaite’s tongue-in-cheek, Memory Lane (self-portrait), which shows the artist driving along with a car full of lizards, is once again, that it is simply too large. It would, however, have been a show-stopper alongside so many of the dull, poorly executed works they favoured.

Sharon Billinge, ‘Celeste I’

The judges might also have spared a thought for Paul Miller’s I Am Still (Self-Portrait), which celebrates his recovery from a serious operation. The work loses nothing in comparison with most of the paintings that actually got hung, and has an affirmative aspect that might speak to anyone who has come through their own brush with illness or mortality. There’s another case to be made for Sharon Billinge’s tiny portrait of her friend, Celeste Chandler, who died last year. Matters of life and death provide better reasons for portraiture than mere flattery. Sinead Davies, on the other hand, makes flattery look perfectly agreeable in a portrait of Heather Ewart, for which the veteran ABC presenter appears to have been sipping at the Fountain of Youth.

Sinead Davies, ‘Heather Ewart’

Paul Miller is one of those consistent painters who is consistently rejected from the Archibald. This year he is joined by previous winners, Tony Costa, Lewis Miller and Wendy Sharpe, along with artists who were once virtual regulars, such as Paul Newton, Rodney Pople, Jun Chen and Tom Carment.

We never seem to tire of the Archibald follies, even if it only ever offers a few gleams of gold in a muddy pool. The best interpretation one may put upon this phenomenon is that it’s a bit of fun – an annual festival that need not be taken too seriously. The worst is that it dominates the Sydney art scene so comprehensively it has become the only reason many people pay a ritual, yearly visit to the AGNSW. In the long term this is a worrisome trend because the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman become the public standard by which art is judged. We need to do better than that and consign these much-revered prizes back to a more realistic status – as one of those peculiar things Australians love but the rest of the world can’t understand. Utes and vegemite spring to mind.

 

Salon des Refusés 2024

S.H. Ervin Gallery, 6 June – 8 August 2024

 

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 29 June, 2024