The annual Archibald Prize for portraiture is currently showing at the AGNSW, along with the Wynne and Sulman prizes, and it’s an excellent way to spend a few hours, particularly on Wednesday evenings, when the gallery stays open after dark. You can view the winning entry and others here.
It starts very, very badly. According to Jules Francois Archibald’s bequest, resident Australasian artists are invited to submit portraits painted from life of men or women ‘distinguished in Arts, Letters, Science or Politics.’ What, then, is the portrait of disgraced AFL player Ben Cousins doing hanging on the wall? Last I checked, he was not very distinguished at all, let alone in any of the disciplines outlined in Archibald’s bequest. Oh, he does have some tough stickers emblazoned across his naked chest (the portrait has him chastely covering his nether wares with a sheet while he’s sprawled across a rumpled bed, flanked by a second and third ‘self,’ the first sleeping in a foetal roll and the other sitting by the bed, perhaps looking for his wallet, although god knows a stud like Cousins doesn’t have to pay for it, chaps), massive ornate letters spelling who knows what, I really can’t tell, but I don’t think it’s quite what Jules meant. It’s stretching the friendship that this portrait was chosen for the exhibition because Cousins simply doesn’t qualify, hot pecs or no.
The whole first room is a shambles. The portrait of Senator Bob Brown, member of the Australian Green party, portrays him almost as a Christ-like figure, which is, you know, a trifle extreme. Then there’s Mathew Lyn’s Heiress, his portrait of fellow artist Joan Ross. Ross is wearing a colonial-style dress made entirely of kangaroo fur… ugly and bizarre. Michael Zavros’s Ars longa, vita brevis evokes a skull in his self-portrait, and could, as he suggests, be an interesting comment on the way consumer items are now perceived as core to identity, or his Tom Ford sunnies for eye sockets, expensive Italian shoes for nose cartilage, and collection of colognes for teeth could just be a pretentious copout. I’ll also admit freely I’m biased against the Sass & Bide duo, Sarah-Jane Clarke and Heidi Middleton, so Jenny Sages’s portrait of the pair was never going to get my vote, although I will say it perfectly captures what I can’t bear about them, being that unshakeable sense that they are forever locked in a mutual admiration society that means constantly touching each other and exchanging meaningful glances until the world ends. I just want to hit them. Really hard.
Things improved for me after my Sass & Bide gag. Love author Thomas Keneally’s portrait Mountain of Tom by Paul Ryan; Cherry Hood’s portrait of pianist David Helfgott has captured something so heartbreaking in those haunted eyes; Ngaire Devenport’s affectionate portrait of much- and unfairly maligned artist Ken Done is one in the eye for the curators (ha! He’s finally hanging in AGNSW! Take that!) ; I could look at Indigenous artist Nancy Kunoth Petyarr walking toward me as in a dream in Jan Williamson’s portrait all day (or perhaps it should be all night); Ben Quilty’s portrait of the once hard-living rocker Jimmy Barnes is arresting; James Powditch’s portrait of his artist father Peter Powditch – Peter Powditch is a dead man walking – is as tender and pointed a plea as any son has made to a chain-smoking father; the winning portrait of blind Indigenous musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu by Guy Maestri is sombre and shadowed, it’s beautifully quiet and still; and finally, Anthony Bennett’s self-portrait in the bathroom discussing beauty, bukowski and brett whiteley with my ex, now a stripper, who likes to dress as wonder woman is a wonderful and timely reminder that humour is not illegal in the hallowed halls of Arts, Letters, Science and Politics. It won my vote in the People’s Choice, but you’d have to think Vincent Fantauzzo’s really pretty staggering photo-realist offering (of the show-stealer in the movie Australia, young doe-eyed BrandonWalters) will take out that particular prize, and good luck to him too.
I won’t tell you too much about the Wynne and Sulman prizes this year except this: the Wynne – for landscape painting or figurative sculpture – is always excellent, or at least, there are always several terrific works. I think the Wynne is probably one of my favourite exhibitions of any year – always reliable as a showcase of landscape talent, it never disappoints and often delights. The Sulman – for subject, genre or mural painting (part of its problem, I think, is its major identity crisis) – so pathetic in past years, such a letdown as the final leg of the night, actually managed not to offend me this year, and for that alone I give it full marks for Most Improved Prize.
It’s all on show until 24 May – and it makes a great pre-dinner stroll on a Wednesday night.