The 2011 Archibald Prize

April 16, 2011
Ben Quilty, Margaret Olley, oil on linen, 170 x 150cm
Ben Quilty, Margaret Olley, oil on linen, 170 x 150cm

It’s appropriate the Archibald Prize should coincide with Easter, because the Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW have repented of their sins of last year and asked to be forgiven. Not in so many words, of course. They have simply chosen a better, more credible exhibition and tried to put the horrors of 2010 behind them. While I can’t pretend that this year’s Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes are stunning triumphs, any effort to arrest the inexorable decline should be applauded. Let us give thanks for small mercies.

Some years there is an entry that ticks so many boxes it seems a sure winner. The only obstacle is that the Trustees, being human, must feel reluctant to adopt the obvious course. So although I suggested in a preview that there was no obvious winner this year, on reflection I have to come clean and say Ben Quilty’s portrait of Margaret Olley is so tailored for success its claims can only be ignored if the judges are determined to appear unpredictable.

I’m writing this a week in advance of the announcement, so by now you already know the winner. Right or wrong, let me explain why Quilty’s picture deserves to be favourite. Frivolously, one might begin by noting that the prize went to a figure last year, so it’s more likely to go to a big head this time around. More importantly, it has been 63 years since William Dobell won the Archibald with his iconic portrait of Margaret Olley, and over those decades the sitter has become an Australian icon in her own right. It would be appropriate if Olley were the first person to feature in two Archibald Prize winning portraits.

Add to this the fact that Ben Quilty fits the young, fashionable template the Trustees have preferred in recent years, and has come close to victory on at least two previous occasions. The weakness of the picture is that one can tell it is largely based on a photograph, although this has not worried the judges unduly in the past. Its chief strength is that Quilty has managed to capture a very distinctive likeness that does not flatter the subject but neither does it emphasise the signs of age. Much of the face is left unpainted, with features and blemishes added in a rapid, spontaneous manner. The background is made up of thick swathes of paint. The entire work has a blend of energy and delicacy that is as characteristic of the sitter as it is of the artist.

 

One painting that bears comparison with the Quilty, and may merit the attention of the Trustees, is Angus McDonald’s portrait of another great patron of the arts, Dr Ann Lewis AO. An oppressively dark and sombre picture, it captures the resilient spirit Lewis has shown in her battles with ill health. She is standing in the darkness looking out into the light, not vice versa. The work has a gravitas that transcends everything else in this year’s competition.

From here it is a toss-up as to how the Trustees might go. Unlike their predecessors, who were happy to present the first four Archibalds to W.B.McInnes, or give it to William Dargie no fewer than eight times, today’s Trustees have shown themselves reluctant to award the prize to a previous winner. If so, that would rule out the claims of Del Kathryn Barton, Geoff Dyer, Nicholas Harding, Craig Ruddy, Lewis Miller and Adam Cullen.

Dyer is the pick of this group, with a portrait of David Walsh, the man behind Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New – an institution that currently enjoys a higher international profile than the AGNSW. Walsh stands in a neutral grey space, flanked by sides of beef that seem to bleed off the canvas. Dyer has allowed Walsh’s T-shirt and jacket to do the same, giving the picture a strange diminuendo. It’s sheer coincidence that Vincent Fantauzzo’s portrait of chef, Matt Moran, which won this year’s Packers’ Prize, also frames its subject with slabs of meat. The difference is that Walsh holds his own in this meaty setting, while Moran seems to play a supporting role.

There has been some talk about Del Barton’s Mother (a portrait of Cate), but this ode to motherhood, which manages to be both unnaturally rigid and psychedelic, is probably too similar to the artist’s winning entry of 2008, in which she painted herself and her children. It’s an eye-catching work, but more of a symbolic representation than a portrait. It doesn’t look much like Cate Blanchett, but presumably Raphael’s Madonnas didn’t resemble the historical Mary. It’s worth noting that while Geoff Dyer’s portrait of David Walsh is better than his Archibald Prize winner of 2003, Barton’s 2008 painting was more convincing than her current entry.

Another name that has been bandied about this year is Alexander McKenzie, for a portrait of actor, Richard Roxburgh astride a red bicycle. While Barton hardly aims at getting a likeness, McKenzie has captured his subject with great precision. The problem is that Roxburgh has been planted in a typical McKenzie landscape – looking like the painting Caspar David Friedrich forgot. It has a decidedly arbitrary feel, as if the artist was too eager to assert his own trademark.

 

The picture makes a striking contrast with Matt Doust’s White Cocoon, which focuses on the unlined, mask-like face of Gemma Ward. This is arguably a much more effective way of portraying an actor – as a tabular rasa upon which a character is constructed. We tend to know actors through the roles they play rather than their off-screen personas, while the pressures and dangers of celebrity ensure that even in their daily lives they are still acting. Nick Harding tries to thwart this idea with his low-key portrait of Hugo Weaving “at home”, but with lacklustre results.

As usual, this year’s show includes a strong selection of works by Chinese émigré artists. Adam Chang probably leads the charge with a huge portrait of novelist, J.M.Coetzee that has been weirdly hung high on the wall of the main gallery. The picture is big enough to withstand this treatment, but no artist enjoys the sensation of being ‘skied’. Shen Jiawei’s Self-portrait as Quong Tart’s contemporary (after John Thompson), is immaculately painted, and filled with the historical and humorous references that one expects from an artist whose pictures unfold like a story book.

Apple Xiu Yin’s portrait of Cheryl Barker is her best Archibald effort to date, while Song Ling and Zhong Chen have both contributed images with a large element of self-parody. Kate Beynon’s self-portrait is a very simple, likeable picture, but her style is really a kind of graphic illustration that reveals its limitations when put against more painterly entries.

If there were an award for going over-the-top, Rodney Pople would have the field to himself. Artist and family (after Caravaggio) shows Rodney as Holofernes being beheaded by Judith, played by his wife, Felicity. The blank expressions on the faces of wife and kids say: “He had it coming.” Art historians inclined to a psychoanalytic approach interpret beheadings as signs of castration anxiety. On the other hand, it may be just a gag in dubious taste.

 

Tim Storrier has produced a less stridently self-mocking image in Moon boy (self-portrait as a young man), but his vision of himself as an empty suit of clothes is also a lament for a youth that has vanished, never to return. There is a similar message in Ken Done’s Me, March 2011, in which the artist appears to be looking in the mirror, shocked by the aging face that confronts him. Jenny Sages meditates on mortality in a very warm and personal portrait of her late husband, Jack, painted at the end of many years of married life. There is no darkness in this picture, rather the glow of approaching evening.

One of the pleasing aspects of this year’s show is the absence of pictures that leave one gasping in disbelief. There is the usual smattering of ‘little gems’ – none of them in with a chance this time; a few hyperrealist works that do nothing a photograph can’t do more economically; and even the obligatory portrait of art dealer, Ray Hughes. In all his Archibald appearances, never has Hughes seemed more weather-beaten or more cheerful than in Lucy Culliton’s Ray in Paris. The viewer looks first at a bowl of gelato, follows the curve of Ray’s tie as it ascends over his ample mid-riff, arriving at a red face brimming with mischief. This portrait is certainly good enough to win the Prize, but it would be a brave group of Trustees that allowed Ray Hughes to have the last laugh.

Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, April 16, 2011