A Retrospective of Chinese Archibald Finalists

August 1, 2015
Song Ling, 'My name is Fartunate – self-portrait', (2011), acrylic on canvas, 198 x 198cm
Song Ling, 'My name is Fartunate – self-portrait', (2011), acrylic on canvas, 198 x 198cm

When the Archibald Prize was first awarded in 1921 it was a strictly Caucasian affair. There was not much colour to the artists or their paintings – mostly brown pictures of men in suits. The riotous creations currently lining the walls at the Art Gallery of NSW would have seemed like bad jokes to the Trustees of those days.

If the first years of the Archibald reflected the homogeneous nature of Australian society in the 1920s, today’s exhibition is an exercise in applied multiculturalism. Chinese painters have become such a regular fixture it’s strange to think that the first Archibald finalist by a Chinese-born artist was Wendy Li’s portrait of Eunice Gardner F.R.A.M. in 1990. Where is the picture today? Unlike those stalwarts that come back year after year, it was the only time this artist had a work selected for the show.

This was also the first year for a China born, non-Chinese artist – Jenny Sages – who has been hung on 20 occasions without ever winning.

Sages, the eternal Archibald bridesmaid, is the surprise inclusion in A Retrospective of Chinese Archibald Finalists put together by Jiawei Shen for the China Cultural Centre in Sydney, at 151 Castlereagh Street. Sages sneaks into this group of 23 portraits by 16 artists by virtue of being born in Shanghai into the White Russian community.

Shen, another former resident of Shanghai, may be suggesting that the Chinese, who have spread to every part of the world, do not see themselves as an exclusive group. As Chinese artists have been welcomed into the Archibald, so too can they welcome one slightly ambiguous westerner into their ranks. Not only do we get Sages’s moving Self-Portrait of 2012, she also appears in Shen’s portrait of 2002, The Lady From Shanghai (Jenny Sages).

Winner: People's Choice 2012, Jenny Sages, 'After Jack' (2012)

Jenny Sages, ‘After Jack’ (2012)

Shen may feel a certain affinity with Sages, as he has had works hung on 14 occasions without a win. The Sages portrait is one of his very best, and would have given the Trustees pause for thought if they hadn’t been overwhelmed by Cherry Hood’s large, show-stopping portrait of Simon Tedeschi.

Like any good artist-curator, Shen has made sure he is well represented in this exhibition, with five entries. Nevertheless, had he chosen to opt out the show would have provided a distorted picture of the way Chinese artists have steadily infiltrated the Archibald. He has been the most dedicated of all the émigrés in his annual pursuit of the Prize, proving that you don’t have to win in order to reap the benefits. The constant exposure has helped Shen become one of Australia’s leading portraitists, with a list of subjects that includes John Howard, Princess Mary of Denmark and Pope Francis.

Now you know what to answer if you’re asked on trivia night what these three have in common.

When Shen was seeing off the Cultural Revolution in snowy Manchuria in the mid-1970s, the state-sanctioned art of the day was a style often referred to as “Romantic Realism”. The work was only ‘realistic’ in that figures and backdrops were painted with the utmost technical correctness. The subjects were pure propaganda: cheerful peasants, heroic workers and soldiers; and always, the smiling, benevolent image of Mao Zedong himself.

It was a Communist romance, intended to portray China as a land of harmony and equality, in which every citizen worked for the happiness and prosperity for all. The reality was almost precisely the opposite. By the time of Mao’s death in 1976, the privations suffered by most Chinese could no longer be ignored.

The changes would come and China would grow prosperous, but the transition was painful. The events of Tiananmen Square in June 1989 made many artists and intellectuals feel their newfound freedoms would prove short-lived. They preferred exile in a foreign country, where most of them could hardly speak the language, to the uncertainties of life in their homeland.

In practice this meant taking low-paid jobs as factory workers, taxi drivers, house painters and dishwashers. Artists who had spent years training as traditional brush-and-ink painters found no market for their work in Australia. Those, like Shen, who had honed their skills in China’s art academies, found themselves out-of-step with the contemporary art they saw in local art museums and commercial galleries. For the first two years of his life in Sydney, Shen found a use for his artistic abilities drawing instant portraits of tourists at Darling Harbour.

It would take the Chinese emigrés the best part of ten years to learn enough English to communicate freely, and understand the oddities of Australian society. Their first task was to overcome the culture shock of arriving in a country where everyone has an opinion about everything, and disrespect for authority is a national pastime. The legendary egalitarianism of Australian society insists that Jack is as good as his master, even if he earns only a fraction of the boss’s income. Yet Australia is a politically complacent society in which the most vehement animosities rarely lead to anything more than an argument. Chinese history, by contrast, is soaked in blood.

For a migrant from China it was difficult to understand how Australians can be so casual in their political beliefs, family values, and even in their attitudes towards money. Not many Australians share that Chinese fear of poverty and hardship, or feel the same urge to keep improving their financial and social position. To Chinese eyes Australians lack ambition, or are simply lazy. Why else would all the shops close at 5 pm?

If the Chinese painters are more versatile than their Australian-born counterparts, they are also more pragmatic. Once these artists had begun to understand what local audiences wanted, they adapted with remarkable speed. I know that Wang Xu, Jun Chen and Song Ling were trained as traditional brush-and-ink painters, although one would never guess as much from looking at their contributions to this show.

Wang Xu has a portrait of Nick Waterlow (2008) and a double portrait of John Yu and George Soutter (2007), painted in a realistic style that seems almost effortless. The strength of these pictures is Xu’s ability to capture personality, which may be expressed in the twinkle of an eye, a wrinkle in the forehead or the simplest of gestures. One notable absence is Xu’s multi-pannelled portrait of 30 Chinese dissidents that featured in the 2013 Archibald. It’s not the kind of thing the official Culture Centre can cheerfully embrace.

John Yu also features in Jun Chen’s double portrait, John Yu with artist (2012), which adopts a child’s-eye viewpoint, staring up at the looming faces of the two men. It’s a virtuoso piece, painted with thick wads of oil paint applied in small touches. Chen wields the palette knife as if it were a two-haired brush.

Song Ling’s My Name is Fartunate – self-portrait (2011), is one of the most unusual items. The artist portrays himself wearing only a pair of red underpants and the broadest smile, weighed down by designer-label shopping bags. It’s a joke that could apply, with equal relevance, to life in latter-day Sydney or Shanghai. The semi-pixellated Pop style that Ling uses is perfectly suited to his subject, satirising the way we equate happiness with the pursuit of consumer goods.

In two paintings by Adam Chang, from 2005 and 2011, one can chart the artist’s stylistic evolution. The first is a quiet, introverted portrait of Gene Sherman, in which the subject occupies only a fraction of a bare, suggestive picture. The second portrays novelist, J.M.Coetzee, in the form of a vast head-shot, on a canvas measuring 240 X 310 cms. While the earlier portrait is painted with the most delicate realism, the second is expressionistic, using oils applied with sweeps of the palette knife.

It could be two different artists, but it’s one painter demonstrating his mastery of completely different styles. This facility would have guaranteed success during the early years of the Archibald, but nowadays the Trustees are looking for different qualities. Skill is less valued than novelty, although one might euphemistically call it “innovation” or “originality”. The challenge for these supremely skillful artists is to adapt themselves to the judges’ unspoken criteria. By now they’ve had time to realise that the Archibald is a fortress that won’t be taken by force, but by strategy.

A Retrospective of Chinese Archibald Finalists
China Cultural Centre in Sydney, until 27 August

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 25th July, 2015