Salon des Refusés 2015 & Stars + Stripes

August 8, 2015
Paul Trefry, 'Homeless still human', silicone, fiberglass, horse hair, and polyester resin
Paul Trefry, 'Homeless still human', silicone, fiberglass, horse hair, and polyester resin

Archibald season demands to be taken seriously because it’s the only time of the year most of the public feel motivated to visit the Art Gallery of NSW and associated venues. During the Archibald Prize the AGNSW is full of people – a surge in visitation that has become more crucial than ever. With both the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of South Australia posting record attendances for the year 2014-15, the spotlight is now on the AGNSW, which has yet to release its figures.

The gallery’s attendances and revenues declined significantly during 2013 – 2014, and it would be surprising if this year’s annual report provided any better news. The NGV has boosted its visitation with a non-stop program of original exhibitions and events, giving the general public a reason to keep coming back. Too often, large parts of the AGNSW have been closed for extended rehangs, while major exhibitions have not proven to be crowd-pullers.

Never has the Archibald been more important to the AGNSW’s well-being. Thankfully, the current show is a step forward in terms of selection and display, with a high number of first-timers. This set up an expectation that the Salon des Refusés at the S.H. Ervin Gallery would be packed with the works of well-known artists spurned by the fickle Trustees.

The truth is rather disappointing, with Wendy Sharpe the only former Archibald winner in a lacklustre field. Although the curiosity factor will always draw viewers there are very few outstanding pictures. One suspects that many of the artists who didn’t make the cut at the AGNSW declined to be hung in the Salon. This is a shame because this show should not be viewed as a second-rate affair but as an opportunity to embarrass the Archibald judges.

WENDY SHARPE, Self portrait with puppet (Wendy Sharpe, artist), oil on linen

WENDY SHARPE, Self portrait with puppet, oil on linen

If artists opt out because of hurt pride or snobbery they lose the chance to put their work before a big audience, and diminish the impact of the exhibition. The other determining factors are the tastes of this year’s judges, Jane Watters and Damien Minton; and the unpredictable quality of work from which they had to make a selection.

From a group of 34 Archibald entries and 19 from the Wynne Prize, there are very few instances where it appears the Trustees of the AGNSW have made a grievous error. One might make a case for Nick Stathopoulos’s hyperrealist portrait of Jenny Sages, but it does not possess the same sense of conviction as his portrait last year, of Robert Hoge. Another strong candidate is Dapeng Liu’s very slick Carlotta – Queen of the Cross, but here again there is more technique than feeling.

Smaller portraits such as Nicolette Eisdell’s Judy Cassab, Peter Wegner’s Andrew Sayers in the cold studio, and Hadyn Wilson’s Self-portrait with scarf (V-2) could easily have snuck into the Archibald. The most original and unusual entry is Michael Mucci’s From little things, which features a fastidious portrait of celebrity gardener, Kostas Georgiadis, surrounded by flowers and insects. The paper support has been delicately stained with tea.

The Wynne entries are dominated by Paul Trefry’s silicone sculpture, Homeless still human – a giant-sized effigy of a young hoodie begging on the street. It’s a confronting piece with a social conscience that might have provided a talking point at the AGNSW, but the Trustees are obviously not sentimental types.

The peculiarity of this year’s Wynne is that it is a relatively strong selection, but the prize was awarded to Natasha Bieniek for a picture measuring nine square centimetres. Size is not the major issue, it’s the question as to whether this was genuinely the best work in the show. The painting was colourful and skillful, but the image was hardly more distinguished than the snaps we take with our smart phones.

Tom Carment, 'Redleaf Pool'

Tom Carment, ‘Redleaf Pool’

For small-scale work I’d prefer Tom Carment’s tiny watercolour studies of Redleaf pool, in the Salon. Paintings by Tim Burns, David Collins, Peter Stevens and Emma Walker would also have been creditable Wynne inclusions. I almost laughed to find Ross Laurie once more relegated to the S.H. Ervin, with Trees and light – Hurricane Gully. His brand of abstracted landscape, which has won him a following among private collectors, never seems to make an impression on the Trustees.

Rather than spend any longer fossicking in the Salon des Refusés, I’m going to turn to an exhibition that might otherwise get away from me amid the usual art traffic jam. Stars + Stripes: American Art of the 21st century from the Goldberg Collection may be seen at the Manly Art Gallery and Museum. This is the third venue in a nine gallery regional tour, organised by the indefatigable Richard Perram, director of the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery.

Among private collectors, Lisa and Danny Goldberg still seem like new kids on the block but they are eager to share their holdings with the public. There’s plenty of inspiration out there at the moment, with the Kaldor and Sherman Collections occupying serious space at the AGNSW. Danny Goldberg may be starting at the grass roots, with the regional galleries, but he is providing some unusually adventurous content.

This touring show features works by contemporary American artists who will be largely unknown to viewers in places such as Cowra, Taree, Wagga Wagga – and Sydney.

Of the 33 artists in this show, there are those such as Haim Steinbach and Sterling Ruby, who have well-established international profiles, but many more who fall into the ‘emerging’ category. Goldberg is willing to take a punt on an artist he likes, accepting the fact that some of his choices may go on to be stars while others slide into obscurity. It’s as much of a speculation as buying shares in a new company.

The unspoken safety net that operates in the top echelons of the American art market is that dealers make strenuous efforts to ensure a rising artist’s prices remain high. They may even refuse to sell to collectors that have a history of re-selling pieces through the auction houses.

Stars + Stripes is a raw, edgy collection in which nothing seems wildly original. Most of the pieces are variations on well-worn themes, punning on the work of famous predecessors such as Robert Rauschenberg or Donald Judd. These younger artists, from both New York and Los Angeles, are intensely aware of the burden of art history with its breakthroughs, revelations and dogmas.

The pervasive irony we associate with the Postmodernists of the early 1980s is present in this show, but there is also a fascination with materials and texture.

Mike Bouchet stencils the slogan “refresheverything” on a canvas stained with Diet Coke. It’s an oblique homage to Ed Ruscha, for the age of recycling.

Michael Williams mixes seemingly incompatible styles of modernist painting on a single canvas, while Richard Aldrich juxtaposes a panel of gestural abstract painting with a severely minimal – yet ambiguous – image. Jeff Elrod superimposes a heroic doodle over a backdrop of airbrushed smudges. Seth Price has produced a geometric relief sculpture that is also an opened envelope. Or is it a body bag?

As a portrait of contemporary art in the United States, this exhibition reveals a culture that can no longer draw a line between artifice and authenticity. Sterling Ruby gives us a vision of the cosmos made from cardboard, paint and polyurethane, with a measuring tape marking the path of a comet. It’s as if the desire to make a grand Romantic gesture is coupled with an inability to accept a spiritual dimension. It’s an aesthetic brought to earth by an innate cynicism, with the artists huddled in the long shadow of Marcel Duchamp.

In such a scenario the only certain thing is the marketplace, which puts a cash value on any creative activity. Unless you’re Andy Warhol, who had no difficulty reconciling art business and business art, it’s difficult to feel there is anything noble about the mechanisms by which art today is bought and sold. By railing against the heroic figures of Modernism, the artists in Stars + Stripes are also revealing their own frustration at making art in an era in which it’s no longer possible to imagine oneself a pioneer or a revolutionary. The fallback position is mere fame and fortune.

Salon des Refusés 2015
S.H. Ervin Gallery, until 13 September

Stars + Stripes: American Art of the 21st Century from the Goldberg Collection
Manly Art Gallery and Museum, until 30 August

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 8th August, 2015