The last day of the annual Archibald Portrait Prize is Sunday 18 May, so you’ve only got a few days left to toddle into the AGNSW and see this year’s offerings. Once you’ve taken in the Archies, the Wynne and the Sulman prizes, I think you’ll be quite satisfied that at $8 a pop, you’ve had your money’s worth.
As always, this year’s exhibition is a bit of a mixed bag. In fact, overall there’s probably fewer portraits on display that really moved me than in previous years. But the ones that did are great. The winner is Del Kathryn Barton’s whimsical, loving, in some ways quite haunting You are what is most beautiful about me, a self-portrait with her two young children. I liked the painting more after reading the accompanying text, because the artist is so eloquent on the subject of motherly love, and it makes the whole portrait, which is technically impressive, really very affecting.
The other one that was a real stand out (as well as, for me, Grabowsky by Peteris Ciemitis and Angelina Pwerle by Song Ling) was the portrait of the late Heath Ledger – titled simply Heath – by Vincent Fantauzzo. I know, I know, I bet you’re thinking ‘Ugh, gimmicky, tacky, macabre,’ but I can assure you it is none of those things. For a start, the two men were friends. For another thing, they’d discussed the project for a couple of years, but eerily Heath sat for the portrait only shortly before he died. I can’t tell you how gripping it is, you really have to see it to understand its power. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that the actor’s death probably hurt its chances of winning. The judges probably felt they couldn’t award it the prize given the timing, that it would have been seen to capitalise in some way or to bow to popular sentiment or something like that. Those issues may well have clouded the biggest one, which is the piece itself and whether it might have been a deserving winner. I think it easily stands up to the Barton, which, as I say, I do love. But in Heath, the eyes, the self, the soul, the whispering tormentors… I think it is a study of great depth, and I defy anyone to see it and not be sucked into its dark centre.
I could go on… but I’ll just mention a few other faves from other parts of the tripartite exhibition. I didn’t love Rodney Pople’s self-portrait in the Archies, but I did enjoy his Wynne entry, North South Runway, Sydney Airport. I think the judges got it pretty right this year in the Wynne. The watercolour prize went to a worthy contender, John Wolseley’s Camel Gate, Border Track, SA/VIC, and I really loved the main prize winner, Joanne Currie Nalingu’s The river is calm (except be warned that the web photo does not at all do it justice). Actually the painting itself is calm; there is something incredibly restful about it, almost like that soporific feeling that descends on one after a riverside picnic… I wonder how she managed to evoke that in the colour palette and in the deceptively simple composition. It is also quite fluid feeling, and projects something that all water courses have for me, and that’s suppressed power. Some people are surprised by the sheer strength of a hidden current, but I never am. I never forget it’s there, and it’s certainly present in Nalingu’s painting.
On to the Sulman, which you may recall didn’t get great raps from me last year. On the whole I would say it has improved, but I didn’t care a fig for the winning entry, so much so that I can’t even tell you, oh yes, it’s come back to me now, it’s the third Rodney Pople on display, entitled Stage Fright. Was it, one wonders, a consolation prize because he failed to take out either of the other two? Who knows, but it was the least interesting of his three, and certainly wouldn’t have scored my vote (it’s of an awkward looking zebra arching toward the light, by the way, referencing someone or other) in a fit. I really loved the Jeffrey Smart-esque entry by Biron Valier, Manly Wharf, I thought it was perfect, right up my alley and I wish I could buy it (which of course is exactly the response Jeffrey Smart’s own work always elicits from me – sigh), and I also enjoyed the oddness and bibliophilic quality of Vilma Bader’s Home Brewed. Julie Donnelly’s Random acts was cool, a nice, surprising piece, and the runner up, Parme by Aida Tomescu, was striking, full of personality and drama. But Stage fright? Yawn.
Anyway, I’ll finish this with another Philip Wolfhagen lament. Oh, that we had bought one of his works whilst we still might have! His Wynne entry this year, New Delirium V, confirms beyond all doubt that I am indeed a fan of this Tasmanian artist’s work. Buggery and damnation, he’s beyond us now for all time!