Art Attack

April 15, 2010 at 8:36 am (Uncategorized)

A day of redrafting – boy, it’s such slow going I’d really quite appreciate a gigantic, tireless avatar’s taking over while I hop into the sack for a bit of a snooze – and I’m concerned it’s going to be an evening of redrafting too, so I thought I’d take a break and say g’day. It’s Archibald Prize season in Sydney, and Llewie, his sister F and I all went along last night (the Art Gallery of New South Wales opens late every Wednesday, which is perfect for those nights when Llew can sneak out of work at a reasonable hour). F works at the gallery as a photographer, so she’d already seen the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes in all their controversial glory. And in great detail, as it turned out, because she’s had to photograph them for work, so really she was there to catch up with us, not lean in and sniff the oils.

Some surprise omissions this year, including Nicholas Harding (not sure if he entered a portrait in competition or not, but I missed him!), and some surprise inclusions. I might as well come clean. After spending the past few years carefully opening myself up to it, photo-realism is really starting to grate on my nerves, and the Archibald Portrait Prize now seems to be favouring photo-realistic works to such an extent that it’s making the whole exhibition a little ho-hum. Sure, yes, skill is required to make any painting look uncannily real – and I’ve seen commercial galleries hanging a lot of photo-realistic landscapes of late, too, so portraiture is not the only culprit here – but oughtn’t the form strive for so much more than that?

Portraiture, it seems to me anyway, is so much more layered than photo-realism allows, and I fear this growing over-emphasis on the so-called reality of a painting, and the apparent vogue in Archibald selection for the most life-like rendering of a subject in situ, is really deadening and homogenising the field. What strikes the coldest blow to my heart is my fluttering fear that this homogeneity is becoming sort of typical of Australian tastes: give us safe, give us sameness, make it easy on the eye, easy down the throat, easy on the ear, easy on the mind, give us dull, dull certainty at every unremarkable turn, and please don’t make anything too hard because, well, we’re all too soft and satisfied these days to bother with anything too challenging.

Say it isn’t so!

I hope I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong about plenty of things, including my fledgling thesis that Australia’s problem is its crisis of prosperity (a nice problem to have, indeed, but there’s more to prosperity than meets the aspiring eye, and some of it ain’t pretty), but I especially hope I’m wrong about this flat-lining effect. I’m sure it’s all in my mind, which was an ever unreliable source. Anyway, to the Archies… I’ve never been exposed to the work of the subject of the winning portrait, Tim Minchin, but I did like the lush texture of this work (oil and resin on wood); the curtains draping behind Minchin appear substantial, fluid and there’s something very seductive in the small, uncertain space in which Minchin stands. As Llew said, it’s a work that eventually wins you over rather than wows you at first apprehension, and that it invites this further contemplation makes it a deserving winner, as I do not believe many of the portraits hanging engage the observer in any interesting way. The best you can say of something like the Kate Cebrano portrait, for instance, is that, gee, it looks just like her (you can view all the finalists here, but I should warn you my own favourites are not flattered by their appearance online). Sitting on the couch at home. What does it reveal of the sitter? Nothing, so who cares? There’s nothing thought-provoking or surprising contained in its smooth perfection, and I for one thought it and others elicited nothing more than a big fat yawn.

The dark yet playful, mysterious and quite movingly mortal work by Nigel Milsom, Adam Cullen (bird as prophet), scored my vote in the People’s Choice; another worthy contender must be James Money’s portrait of the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, a painting that rewards closer inspection.

Sam Leach also won the Wynne Prize, so it’s been a nice little earner for him this year, and while I quite liked his whimsical landscape work – Proposal for landscaped cosmos – I didn’t think it was by any stretch the best landscape work hanging. For a start, all three Indigenous works are truly excellent this year; Joanne Currie-Nalingu’s Calm river country is so soothing it verges on hypnotic, and Elizabeth Kunoth Kngwarray is just spectacularly gifted: My Grandmother’s country is stunning. Gosh, there were so many excellent works here (yet again the Wynne leaves the other two prizes for dead) – I couldn’t help but be reminded of Watership Down’s cover when I saw Michael McWilliams’s Rabbitscape, but those bunnies sure are beautiful; Philip Wolfhagen delights as always with Journey to the source V; and Nobody is necessary, Juan Ford’s majestically spare vision, does a good job of making one feel small.

I don’t have much to say about the Sulman; it’s usually brazenly underwhelming, and I’m afraid this year’s no exception to the rule. Just look at the winner.



  1. Grad said,

    By royal proclamation and by the powers invested in me as – Um – the former recipient of the Beautiful Blogger Award AND Honest Scrap Award, I hereby bestow upon Doctordi these aforementioned honors (buttons can be found at The Curious Reader) from party of the first part to party of the second part, whereby and to wit the second party must disclose and produce (with proper punctuation) 10 things about party of the second part not hitherto or hereinabove known. Following completion of said mission (if you choose to accept it) party of the second part shall name 10 parties to perform above-referenced duties, and then, I guess, the party of the first part, second part,and all other parties will have a big PARTY.

    • doctordi said,

      Ooooooh, THANK YOU, Graddikins, I am honoured to accept this award!!!! I’m just a bit unsure there’s ten MORE things you don’t know about me, beyond the things I named the last time I was so kindly recognised in a similar fashion by Charlotte of the Burg (July 09). But I shall endeavour to meet your terms!

  2. Grad said,

    Powers vested in me (but I have some powerful investments as well)

  3. Norwichrocks said,

    Well, that was an uncanny post, in that my own views of the Archie/Wynne/Sulman exhibitions and winners were pretty much the same. I, too, loved the Adam Cullen (bird as prophet) by Nigel Milsom.

    I’ve never been a fan of photo-realism – or hyper-realism as it often ends up, with far more detail in sharp focus than the eye ever sees in reality – but what I liked about the Sam Leach paintings in both categories was the way they managed to be technically faultless but still have a slightly unsettling quality, to suggest depths and secrets which are usually absent in photo-realistic work. And which were certainly absent in much of the rest of the work on display.

    • doctordi said,

      Great minds think alike, Woo! Yes, I agree with your take on the two Leach paintings. That faintly otherworldly quality of the portrait is more consciously explored in the landscape, I think, but yes, it does lend both an unsettling quality that’s very arresting.

  4. litlove said,

    I completely agree about the overratedness of the realism in photorealism. What you see is so not what you get, as far as people are concerned, and I would so much rather have a portrait that suggested mystery, depth, otherness, than one that just took pride in displaying every wrinkle.

    • doctordi said,

      LL, it’s funny that something that seeks to be ‘real’ ends up so two-dimensional, isn’t it?

  5. Lilian Nattel said,

    Favoured styles come and go. I think it’s fascinating that photo-realism has come back into vogue. I’d have thought, with photography, it was gone gone gone. But it will go again, that’s just the way. I saw Rembrandt’s etchings (17th c) next to Lucien Freud’s (21st c) at the Art Gallery of Ontario on Wednesday. I have to say in general I preferred Rembrandt’s (the details) but there were a couple of Freud’s that I found remarkable. Not photo-realism.

    • doctordi said,

      Photo-realism certainly seems to be in vogue here right now. Of course you’re absolutely right, Lilian, these things do seem to come in waves, and it’s reassuring to be reminded of that, because this too shall pass! And the other thing is that I love photography, and the depth and sophistication meanwhile being achieved by photographic artists is starting to look quite ironic.

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