The 2017 Archibald Prize

July 28, 2017
Mitch Cairns's Agatha Gothe-Snape, the first Archibald Prize winner with a green nose
Mitch Cairns's Agatha Gothe-Snape, the first Archibald Prize winner with a green nose

By the usual Archibald Prize standards 2017 is a low key year. There are plenty of neat, correct entries, a touch of quirkiness, a bit of thick impasto, but nothing to get the pulse racing with delight or indignation. Unless, perhaps, you’re a lunatic right-winger who starts to foam at the mouth at the merest glimpse of former Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs – the subject of a portrait by Yvette Coppersmith that looks like it was sponsored by Marimekko.

There is a shrewdness in portraying Professor Triggs as a decorative object rather than a martyr to political controversy. Given an opportunity to make a banal political point many artists would not have been able to restrain themselves. This year the only finalist who strives to impress us with her political awareness is Sophia Hewson, with an over-the-top portrait of professional larrikin, Richard Bell, romping in Alpine meadows with a blonde-haired girl I assume to be the artist, and a selection of Disney characters.

Yvette Coppersmith, Professor Gillian Triggs

Yvette Coppersmith, Professor Gillian Triggs

The fun ends with Hewson’s artist statement, which is much concerned with “white guilt”. She denounces Australia as “a fantasy land, a cracked cartoon landscape brimming with fairytale myths of freedom and democracy.” To raise our awareness of this state of affairs she has heroically (deliberately?) painted a truly dreadful picture.

Still in her early 30s Hewson has established herself as a dedicated controversialist. The only problem, as a recent “rape representation” video suggested, is that it becomes a little hard to decide where political sincerity gives way to vulgar self-promotion. Considering this is Hewson’s third Archibald Prize she seems to be making all the right moves.

Sophia Hewson, Untitled (Richard Bell).. Who killed Bambi?

Sophia Hewson, Untitled (Richard Bell).. Who killed Bambi?

Tony Albert has come up with a more witty way of drawing attention to indigenous marginalisation, with a self-portrait made up of kitsch ash trays featuring Aboriginal motifs. It seems a peculiar idea today that anyone would want to stub out a cigarette on a decorative Aborigine, but as landscapes, fauna, flora and works of art were also ashtray options, we might have to ascribe this to the mind-set of a different age. The same way of thinking saw the Archibald Prize awarded, year after year, to brown pictures of men in suits.

Robert Hannaford, Michael Chaney

Robert Hannaford, Michael Chaney

One almost feels sorry for those men in suits. They have become today’s Archibald outcasts. The only survivors this time around are Robert Hannaford’s Michael Chaney, and Phil Meatchem’s That Guy, which would never have passed muster in olden days, because it features comedian Francis Greenslade striking a goofy expression.
The straightest picture of all is Paul Newton’s portrait of Rupert Myer, who has at least dispensed with the tie.

Newton, as ever, has captured an excellent likeness, but he seems destined to always make up the numbers in the Archibald exhibition because the Trustees who judge the Prize are looking for something fresh and new. The same applies to Robert Hannaford, who is even more skilful in the studied simplicity of his portrait. If ever anyone deserved to win the Archibald through sheer consistency, it’s Hannaford.

As I’m writing this a week in advance of the announcement, I’m obliged to take a punt at the winner.
The sentimental favourite would be Lucy Culliton’s portrait of chief packer, Steve Peters, who is retiring this year after having viewed more Archibald entries than anyone in history. Yet I doubt the Trustees will be swayed by sentiment. In passing, one might applaud Steve’s self-restraint in not giving his portrait the Packer’s Prize. Consistent to the end, he awarded the coveted and dreaded gong to a good sort. In this case, Peter Smeeth’s near-photographic likeness of TV personality, Lisa Wilkinson.

Lucy Culliton, Finished packing.. the last of the big-time art handlers

Lucy Culliton, Finished packing.. the last of the big-time art handlers

One suspects the Trustees will be equally unmoved by other appeals to sentiment, such as Jun Chen’s portrait of former art dealer, Ray Hughes, peeking sorrowfully through black curtains; or Nicholas Harding’s tribute to the elderly John Olsen, looking as mischievous as ever.
In a room that could pass as a celebration of the palette knife, it appears as if the paintings are eyeing each other suspiciously. All except John Olsen, whose self-confidence is impregnable.

If I’m slightly sceptical about Jun Chen’s portrait it’s because Ray Hughes now looks a lot sharper than he does in this painting. In the portrait we see a man at the end of his tether, watching while the curtains slowly close. The real Ray Hughes, although still confined to a wheelchair, has regained a good deal of his old verve.

Jun Chen, Ray Hughes.. not quite a curtain call

Jun Chen, Ray Hughes.. not quite a curtain call

As a for a winner, the indications this year point to Mitch Cairns, for a flat, hyper-decorative portrait of his artist partner, Agatha Gothe-Snape. All bright colours and sharp edges, the portrait pays homage, not just to Gothe-Snape, but to a long list of modernist painters, from Matisse and Leger, through to the Hard-Edge abstractionists of the 1960s. There’s no attempt at a realistic likeness, but the work retains a sense of intimacy. Gothe-Snape’s yoga pose gently spoofs the artful twists and turns of the stylised room in which she sits.

Most importantly, Cairns has form. He is viewed as a rising star, and was widely considered to be the runner-up in 2015, with a portrait of artist, Peter Powditch (portrayed this year, in a totally different but equally convincing manner by Noel Thurgate). As we’ve seen in the past with artists such as Del Barton, Guy Maestri, Ben Quilty and Fiona Lowry, the Trustees find it hard to resist the allure of young talent.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this year’s Archibald is that it has been displaced from the central downstairs gallery by a floor-to-ceiling display of Central and Western Desert paintings from the Wynne Prize selection, in which indigeous art plays a dominant role.

To move the Archibald from its long-term base is an implicit admission that these big Desert paintings are of more interest to the Trustees than the portrait show. The message is driven home by Tjungkara Ken’s Archibald entry: Kungkarangkalpa tjukurpa (Seven Sisters dreaming), a self-portrait, which is no less of a landscape than anything in the Wynne.

Tjungkara Ken, Kungkarangkalpa tjukurpa (Seven Sisters dreaming), a self-portrait

Tjungkara Ken, Kungkarangkalpa tjukurpa (Seven Sisters dreaming), a self-portrait

Ken’s work demonstrates how indigenous painting simply doesn’t fit into the established western genres, as it’s possible for such a picture to be simultaneously a landscape, a portrait, a history painting, a map and an abstraction. With this provocative inclusion the Trustees have made a mockery of their own categories – a gesture that will polarise audiences, generating both applause and derision.

2017 may not be the most dynamic of Archibald Prizes, but it is notable for a very solid group of small-to-medium sized works by artists such as Andrew Bonneau, Keith Burt, Ashley Frost, Andrew Lloyd Greensmith, and Natasha Walsh. Greensmith’s subject, Eileen Kramer, is 102 years old; Natasha Walsh, who says that portraiture allows her to explore her own “mortality”, is 23.

Natasha Walsh, The scent of rain (self-portrait)

Natasha Walsh, The scent of rain (self-portrait)

Yes, there’s no end of variety. Fans of exacting photorealism will enjoy Jonathan Dalton’s double portrait of artists, Lottie Consalvo and James Drinkwater, who could have painted an entire exhibition in the time it must have taken to complete this painting. For the Bohemian types there’s some whimsical stuff from Marc Etherington, in his cartoonish portrait of yet another artist, Paul Williams.

Actor, John Bell, is represented twice, in modest portraits by Jordan Richardson and Loribelle Spirovski. The Boys of Sydney Grammar Edgecliff Preparatory School, have created a ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’ portrait of retiring principal, John Vallance, using 11,000 tiny, painted wooden blocks. One wonders if they had time left for anything else in art class this year.

Richard Lewers, Liz Laverty

Richard Lewers, Liz Laverty

Richard Lewers, who always comes up with something a bit different, has contributed a portrait of collector, Liz Laverty, that is anything but photographic yet captures his subject almost miraculously. He even shows us a gleaming set of teeth – normally the great taboo for any portrait. I wish I could find the same spark in Anh Do’s disembodied floating head of actor, Jack Charles, but it’s one of those paintings that gets less interesting the longer one looks.

Wait, what am I saying? Shallow? Attention-seeking? Progressively less interesting? It’s a classic Archibald entry!

Archibald Prize 2017
Art Gallery of NSW, 29 July – 22 October

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July, 2017