Archibald Prize 2013: A Preview

March 15, 2013
Xu Wang, Self-portrait (interviewing Maoist victims), oil and acrylic on board, 244 x 368 cm
Xu Wang, Self-portrait (interviewing Maoist victims), oil and acrylic on board, 244 x 368 cm

In the past it has been relatively easy to pick the painting that should win the Archibald Prize, and then to pick the one that will win it. This time around, I confess I’m all at sea.

There is a general feeling among the Art Gallery of NSW staff that this year’s finalists are better and brighter than last year. This superficial impression wears off after a second lap. What seems lively at first glance very quickly begins to look shallow and tacky. Almost nothing stands out from the crowd.

The pendulum swing of the Trustees’ tastes suggests this year’s winner will be a big head rather than a torso, but the big heads are a pretty woeful lot. Jasper Knight has painted the late Adam Cullen, making him look like a good boy, not an enfant terrible, but it’s a simplistic picture. Imants Tillers has painted himself, overlaid with a few pithy sentences, but the features are shrouded in darkness. In Tillers’s favour is the fact that he is a former Trustee, like last year’s winner, Tim Storrier.

Alan Jones has given us a very lumpy Pat Corrigan, while Fiona Lowry has painted a grumpy-looking Shaun Gladwell. The biggest head of the lot is Vince Fantauzzo’s Asher Keddie, an immaculate piece of photorealism that should walk off with the People’s Choice award, but cause serious divisions among the Trustees.

As usual, there is a slightly incestuous air about the selection. There is a portrait of McLean Edwards by Jason Benjamin, and a portrait by McLean Edwards, of curator Glenn Barkley. There is Jasper Knight’s portrait of Adam Cullen, and Sarah Hendy’s portrait of Jasper Knight. James Powditch has contributed a portrait of new Trustee, and fellow artist, Ben Quilty.

Prime locations go to two actors: Alexander McKenzie’s portrait of Toni Colette, framed by a yellow life boat; and Del Kathryn Barton’s Hugo Weaving, with an indefinable feline creature. Could the Trustees give it to Barton again? They will be tempted.

If they wanted to do something really radical, it would be impossible to go past Wang Xu’s multi-panelled picture of himself framed by individual portraits of 30 Chinese dissidents, whom he describes as “Maoist victims”. It would be the only Archibald winner in history that started an international incident.

 

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 15, 2013