Salon des Refusés 2014

August 9, 2014
Nick Stathopoulo, Ugly, Portrait of Robert Hoge, acrylic and oil on linen
Nick Stathopoulo, Ugly, Portrait of Robert Hoge, acrylic and oil on linen

So much has already been written about Sydney’s $9.3 million public sculpture proposals that I’m in two minds whether to comment or leave it alone. Nevertheless, it’s an issue that won’t go away. It’s depressing that the very idea of a city council spending money on art brings out the philistine in a large proportion of the citizenry and the media. One wonders if the ancient Athenians had this problem.

On the other hand the Council’s approach seems slightly duplicitous. Three proposals have been chosen from a long list by a panel of so-called experts, then unveiled with suitable fanfare. The public has been invited to begin a “conversation”. However, this conversation will not affect the choice of art. The selection has been made and rate-payers can only let off steam.

One never really knows what a finished work will look like while it is still in the planning stage, but of the three proposals, Junyo Ishigami’s Cloud Arch looks the most promising. It could be genuinely spectacular. As for the other two, it’s hard to get excited about the idea of an oversized milk crate plonked in Belmore Park, as a kind of ironic celebration of urban squalor; or a bunch of little birds stuck on walls waiting to be prized off by souvenir hunters.

Neither Hany Armanious nor Tracey Emin has come up with an especially original concept, regardless of what the committee would have us believe. One hopes the Council will provide a detailed breakdown of costs, including commissions. It’s alarming to read that Armanious is being paid $1.7 million for a sculpture priced at $2.5 million. The idea is worth about two dollars, so that leaves $1,699,998 for fabrication.

Most works of public art hang around for decades but thankfully the Archibald Prize and its offspring last only a season. The temporary nature of these events allows one to take an optimistic approach to the annual Salon des Refusés at the S.H. Ervin Gallery. I go along every year hoping to find some masterpiece rejected from the Archibald and Wynne exhibitions, but usually leave with a feeling that the Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW made the best of a thankless task. This year was – almost – no exception.

Although the Salon is as patchy as ever, some of the notable rejects may have been victims of a deliberate policy to inject fresh blood into the Archibald Prize. When the AGNSW boasts that the show contains a high percentage of first-timers, it feels like a message to artists such as Jenny Sages and Robert Hannaford that they’ve had their day.

Sages’s portrait of curator, Sarah Engledow, is not her greatest entry, but easily good enough to have been included in this year’s Archibald. Hannaford’s Philip Adams is only average by this artist’s standards, but still superior to many entries that made the cut. The same could be said for the work of a previous winner, Nicholas Harding, who finds himself in the Salon with a back-stage portrait of four actors preparing for a performance of Waiting for Godot.

Nicholas Harding, Playing for Godot, (Ensemble portrait of Luke Mullins, Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh, and Philip Quast), oil on linen

Nicholas Harding, Playing for Godot, (Ensemble portrait of Luke Mullins, Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh, and Philip Quast), oil on linen

As the Trustees displayed a predilection for small pictures this year, one wonders why they couldn’t find room for Peter Wegener’s tiny portrait of tiny Stella Young. Overall it seems the judges have no more time for disability advocates than Kevin Andrews does. Another reject was Nick Stathopoulos’s Ugly – Portrait of Robert Hoge, a man who was born with a severe facial tumour that required numerous operations. Although he still looks strange by conventional standards, Hoge has gone on to a successful career as an advocate, author and political speechwriter.

Stathopoulos’s deadpan, photo-realist head-shot presents the bare facts, with no special pleading. It also raises fascinating issues about the purpose of a portrait, which is often used to flatter or beautify a subject. Hoge may not be Brad Pitt, but he comes across as alert and intelligent. The picture made me think of some of the portraits painted by German and Flemish artists of the Northern Renaissance, who attended ruthlessly to the physical facts when painting donors on altarpieces. If one finds the Virgin Mary standing alongside a cross-eyed merchant, with his hands clasped in prayer, this wasn’t intended as arcane symbolism. This is exactly how the donor must have looked. The artist was fulfilling his duty – both to his God and to his profession – to tell the truth.

Suffering from a similar affliction I feel obliged to observe that the criteria for Archibald selections may not be entirely fair and objective. Some portraits are included because they are talking points rather than works of quality. Others testify to unspoken loyalties in regard to various artists or subjects.

One talking point that went begging is Peter Gardiner’s Ron Ramsey (bonfire), which may be seen in the Salon. If there is an issue that deserves widespread attention it is the shabby treatment dished out to Ramsey, the successful and popular director of the Newcastle Art Gallery, who was sacked by a Council that sees no substantive difference between the state’s most important regional art museum and the Cook’s Hill Surf Club. (This is the ugly antithesis to the artistic enthusiasm of Clover Moore’s regime.) Yet the idea of a gallery without a director threatens to make Newcastle a laughing stock and a pariah. In Gardiner’s rather gloomy picture, Ramsey looks fried to a crisp. Like Morrisey, now he knows how Joan of Arc felt.

I initially thought the Salon’s Wynne selection was stronger than its Archibald picks, but the choice doesn’t sustain much scrutiny. This is partly because the actual Wynne Prize at the AGNSW is a better exhibition than in previous years, with Michael Johnson’s Oceania high low being a worthy winner. The slightly controversial aspect is that Johnson has always identified himself as an abstract artist, despite the persistent suggestions of landscape in his work. As its title suggests, Oceania’ owes a debt to Matisse’s late paper cut-outs, but it’s unmistakably a landscape. It’s the first time in years the Trustees have managed to correctly identify one.

Michael Johnson, Oceania high low, oil on canvas, 184 x 366 cm, 2014

Michael Johnson, Oceania high low, oil on canvas, 184 x 366 cm, 2014

As for the Wynne pieces in the Salon, I’m almost accustomed to the fact that one of Australia’s leading landscape painters, Elisabeth Cummings, has been relegated to the second tier yet again; but it’s surprising that the Trustees dished out the same treatment to a rising star such as Sophie Cape.

Cummings’s Sir John’s Gorge, Mornington, is smaller than some of her entries in previous years, but just as vigorous and densely worked. It’s mystifying to me why this painting was overlooked. As for Sophie Cape, her picture is no less dramatic as its title: The earth whirls towards a creation unknown. Although the work has stylistic echoes of artists such as Antoni Tapies, and even Mike Parr, it still packs a punch. One may chart every gesture in this abstract expressionist compendium of smears, scratches and spatterings, offset by the outline of a falling figure and lines that resemble indecipherable handwriting.

Most of the Salon’s other Wynne entries feel safe and conservative. The major exceptions are Peter Stevens’s Coast, which has an appealing raw simplicity, and Craig Waddell’s The Waterhole. This picture shows Waddell in a more restrained mood, vis-a-vis colour – an area where he often seems to get carried away. Instead of being bullied by an explosive application of paint, the viewer can sense the amount of thought that has gone into this composition.

I might also give a tick to Craig Handley, whose Council cleanup # 6 continues a long line of offbeat, unpredictable entries to local art competitions. When I look at Handley’s work, I think of Dr. Johnson’s verdict on Tristram Shandy: “Nothing odd will do long.” The fact that this novel is still in print should give hope to every purveyor of artistic oddities.

 

Nobody has ever established that an odd work of art can’t also be a good one. Only time will distinguish between the oddness that continues to stimulate the viewer’s imagination and the oddness that quickly palls, even at a cost of $2.5 million.

Salon des Refusés
S.H. Ervin Gallery, until 7 September

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 9th August, 2014