Okay, before this gets eeeeven laaaater… I think this is my fourth attempt to get this post up – the paragraph below is already days old.
Yes, it’s stale, now nearly a week old, but here’s my post on the Archies, which does at least coincide with today’s announcement of the People’s Choice Award, which went to my own vote this year (torn though I was), Adam Chang’s portrait of South African-cum-Australian-citizen-and-pride-of-Adelaide, the Nobel Prize-winning author John Coetzee. So without further ado:
I am sitting in a café around the corner from our apartment with the first hour to myself all week. I don’t know why, but it’s also been an especially long one, and my throat is sore again, a solid hint that I may be about to get sick for the second time in as many weeks. One illness is unusual for me over winter, two unheard of. Times have indeed changed. God I could just about scream were I not in a crowded café. After a week of truly hanging out for the end of it, Llew called yesterday afternoon to tell me he has to work all weekend. And A called on Tuesday to say she couldn’t do her two hours, then called back on Thursday to cancel the whole shaky arrangement. She was trying to explain, but in truth I’d already stopped listening – my mind had already raced ahead to how this would affect me; it’s not flattering, but this is the new filter through which I currently view all my dealings with other people. Someone’s leaving and A has to work in the shop? I’m thinking, I couldn’t care less, lady. You are of no further use to me. Please let me know if that ever changes. Goodbye. And then she says, “But I still come by sometime to say hello to Baby,” and I don’t have the energy to tell her I only run to family and friends in the hosting department. Dropping by for little visits? Oh, I don’t think so. That just sounds like more work for me! Harsh, isn’t it? So Llew had a lousy day and has to spend the entire long weekend at his desk in the empty city? All I can muster is some increasingly enfeebled protest of self-interest.
Anyway, I am not going to spend my remaining half-hour of freedom moaning (I’ve spent valuable minutes unhurriedly eating my breakfast, you see – two poached eggs on dark rye toast – using actual cutlery and even chewing before I swallowed, just like I used to). Because the highlight of the week was undoubtedly Thursday afternoon’s last-minute decision not to wallow at home after A pulled the pin but instead head downtown with Master J to take in the 2011 Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW).
Good. Decision. Just being at the gallery was enormously soothing. I’d also timed it well; there was a late afternoon lull, and only a handful of people wandered around, speaking in hushed tones or taking in the exhibition alone. I’ve never been at the Archies with anything like so few other oglers – it was brilliant not straining to see and being able to read the text cards without feeling like a hog. Now, I like this year’s winner, Ben Quilty’s portrait of one of Australia’s true living treasures, the artist (and generous patron) Margaret Olley. I’ve heard Olley is modest on the subject of her own importance, but I think there must be quite a force of personality behind her longevity and her output, and I think the portrait’s strong lines speak to that character. On the other hand, Quilty’s also captured a gentle sadness in her expression that I find very affecting. What I like best is that it’s such a lively painting – he’s really focused on her face, and has managed to leave her looking cheeky, quizzical, tired, knowing, shrewd and sanguine all at the same time.
Some artists have such a distinctive style their entries are always unmistakable no matter the sitter – I am thinking particularly of Del Kathryn Barton, who won a couple of years ago for her self-portrait featuring her kids, and whose entry this year is of Cate Blanchett with her own three sons. I find Barton’s portraits intriguing… they have a fantastical quality that is both curious and alluring – they are visually quite arresting – but if I had a criticism it would be that in some sense I always come away feeling as though I’m seeing the same painting over and over again. Vincent Fantauzzo’s work is also increasingly familiar; his portrait of celebrity chef Matt Moran won the Packing Room Prize.
I also think I would recognise Nicholas Harding’s work these days, and in fact I’d already seen his portrait of distinguished actor Hugo Weaving on his website, but that’s because I am an admirer. I always go in looking for Harding’s entry and this year was no different, although undoubtedly this time there was an added pleasure. My enthusiasm for Harding’s work actually managed to reach him via this blog, and that’s a good feeling. Positive notices really ought to be shared.
I don’t know if any of you recall the post about the Harding exhibition I attended in February last year? Well, here it is, and imagine my surprise when the artist himself happened upon it and commented last week – quite exciting. I still haven’t located my scribbles from that day – all my notebooks are stacked on The Shelves but they’re not in any sort of ready order and I’m almost scared to start going through them – all 12 pages of them, nor have I progressed my thoughts about an artist character, but it was a genuine thrill receiving the shout out.
He leads me to mention someone else, the subject of one of Harding’s many portraits for the Archibald prize, the writer Robert Drewe (and if you’re Canberra bound, you’re in luck: the National Portrait Gallery, a must-see for the architecture as well as the art, has recently acquired Harding’s portrait of Drewe for its permanent collection). But that’s a post for another day.
Back to the Archies, I just wonder what’s not to like about Harding’s portrait of Weaving. The actor looks so at ease, endearingly dishevelled and unmistakably at home, both in his skin and much more literally: the portrait is called Hugo at home, and sees him relaxing on his living room couch. The text card helpfully explains the just-glimpsed objects that form a casual frame for the actor’s own, and they are all symbolic of family, with Weaving forming its appreciative, rangy centre. He looks immensely comfortable and at peace – dare I say it, happy – and that seems to me in these madding days quite a prize indeed.
Meanwhile it’s official: I could comfortably live without Rodney Pople’s annual presence… his self-conscious darkness regrettably leaves me stone cold. There were two other portraits that have stayed with me, though, both featuring incurable word tragics. First is Amanda Marburg’s DA, of crossword creator and author David Astle. It received a Commendation in the prize and I can see why. Marburg first created a plasticine model of Astle and painted that – the result is a humorous but also wonderfully expressive portrait. Second is Adam Chang’s soulful portrait of author John Coetzee. Hanging high over the main room, Coetzee appears both troubled and slightly troubling in his omnipresent control of the room. It’s a fantastic piece, very rich in my view, with satisfying depth.
The Wynne Prize this year went to Richard Goodwin’s Co-isolated slave – Llew loves it, not me, but he’s the sculptor buff – and I must say I feel a lot better about it now he’s had a stab at explaining it to me.
The Sulman Prize – judged by an artist – was awarded to Peter Smeeth for The artist’s fate… frankly the less I say about the Sulman, the better. I have grown to hate this prize with an unreasonable passion, and I find it embarrassingly amateurish. Unlike the other prizes, I fail to believe this one would stand up in international competition. It feels wretchedly provincial and that probably shouldn’t bother me so but the truth is it makes me feel wild. I stormed through it, shoulders hunched, muttering and swearing. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.