Salon des Refusés 2018

June 29, 2018
Tally Ho! Rodney Pople's portrait of Gai Waterhouse

After the Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW have plucked the choicest morsels from the Archibald and Wynne buffet, it’s left to the Salon des Refusés to clean up the leftovers. This time there was less to choose from, as the Incredible Expanding Archibald Prize had swelled to 59 finalists, removing many good options for the S.H.Ervin scavengers. The Wynne presented less of a problem as the Trustees’ growing infatuation with indigenous art left the works of quite a few reliable balanda artists still sitting on the table.

This year’s Salon exhibition contains 58 pieces – 34 portraits from the Archibald, 17 landscapes from the Wynne. The show vin, like most well-run galleries, has a busy exhibition program to get through. The AGNSW, which seems to regard exhibitions as irritating distractions from the real business of a public gallery – ie. fund-raising – has extended the Archibald season by a month.

The AGNSW would argue that the changes to the duration and composition of the Archibald and Wynne are attempts to revitalise these prizes. The big question is whether the inclusion of so many small works tended to squeeze out larger works of quality. The Salon doesn’t offer any decisive answers. As usual, there are no masterpieces on offer, only a few unlucky, viable alternatives.

Even with an expanded Archibald the Trustees still couldn’t find room for Andrew Sullivan, a consistent painter who is consistently relegated to the Salon, as he is this year with a portrait of Omar Abidin (musican/social worker). Marie Mansfield, who has painted fellow artist, Nick Stathopoulos, has also scored a high number of Salon appearances. The record though, must go to Tom Carment, whose Salon inclusions are now well into the twenties, with The observant Vanessa Berry (author).

Vanessa Berry observes that Tom Carment has been hung in the Salon yet again

There was a time when Carment’s small paintings would be regularly included in the AGNSW show, but he seems to have crossed that invisible line when the Trustees say: “You’ve had your go!”, regardless of the quality of the work. Kate Beynon, Peter Churcher, Rodney Pople and even Wendy Sharpe might be wondering if they’ve entered that same zone after numerous Archibald appearances. Pople may feel justifiably aggrieved, as his equestrian portrait of trainer, Gai Waterhouse is his most engaging entry in years. At 207cm by 238cm it was probably too big for an Archibald fixated on those little gems.

This year’s Archibald would have been improved had the Trustees found room for Cathy Staughton’s Catherina Bell Lady Hot Dress (artist and academic) and Thom Roberts’s Dodley builds skyscrapers (Philip Cox AO, architect). These two artists may be viewed as ‘outsiders’, but their paintings are as fresh as anything in the Salon.

Another picture with strong claims was Robyn Sweaney’s small, double portrait of Doug and Margot Anthony, who have distinguished themselves as outstanding patrons of the arts in the Tweed. Sweaney’s neat, no-frills approach is well-suited to this unostentatious couple.

In Cherrychalina, Elliott Nimmo has portrayed artist, Kate Alstergren, in a manner reminiscent of the American painter, Alex Katz. I suppose Nimmo might argue that Alstergren has precisely the kind of face Katz would favour, so why strive strive for originality when a subject seems best served by a readymade style?

Elliott Nimmo’s ‘Cherrychalina’ (Kate Alstergren)

Turning to the Wynne rejects it’s almost too predictable to encounter pictures by Ross Laurie and Peter Stevens, who have become Salon regulars even though their work loses nothing in comparison to the paintings that have made the cut. The surprise was a five-panel work by Philip Wolfhagen, Autumn noctuary: an elegy for M.C.W, a painting with a subtle, lyrical dimension. Wolfhagen’s variations of light and darkness make for a more ambitious work than say, Kathryn Ryan’s Falling light, another accomplished nocturne.

Kathryn Ryan, ‘Falling Light’

At 200cm by 300 cm, size may have been a factor in the rejection of Tjungkarra Ken’s Seven Sisters, a work that compares favourably with most of the indigenous paintings included in the Wynne. The theme too, is timely, as it relates to the National Museum of Australia’s landmark exhibition of last year, Songlines, which explored the Seven Sisters story.

Ann Thomson’s Newhaven rang a bell for me because I’ve recently been to the same region on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, but presumably it’s not a destination favoured by the Trustees. Two other colourful, lively paintings were Ken Done’s Night Garden and Jo Bertini’s White River Route. Everyone likes to sneer at Done, but his persistent joie-de-vivre is to be preferred to much of the grim, pretentious stuff one encounters on the cutting edge.

Bertini is an artist who can produce a hit or a miss, as she strives to find a balance between simplicity and complexity. This time she’s managed to rescue a sense of beauty from the twists and turns the landscape.

Jo Bertini, ‘White River Route’

It’s easy to fall into tones of consolation when discussing the Salon which is always destined to play second fiddle to the AGNSW exhibitions. Some artists refuse to take part, believing it beneath their dignity. On the other hand the show attracts a large audience and provides broad exposure.

For artists such as Edwin Wilson, a tireless striver in the fields of art and literature, the Salon represents an excellent opportunity to bring his work before the general public, many of whom will pause to admire his neat, subdued Boogarem Falls. It’s also a good break for a young painter such as Edward Humphrey, whose portrait of auctioneer, Geoff K. Gray, shows a taste for exacting realism that may diminish over time.

For some artists being included in the Salon feels like a decline in their fortunes, for others it represents a stepping stone to greater things. Perhaps what’s most important is to feel that those who are selecting these shows are not following a curatorial program, as the suspicious-minded have begun to allege in relation to the AGNSW. It’s the very randomness of the Archibald, the Wynne and the Salon des Refusés that creates interest. As long as artists don’t feel the game is rigged they will continue to participate in this annual carnival, savouring its small-scale agonies and ecstasies.

Salon des Refusés 2018
S.H.Ervin Gallery, 12 May – 29 July, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 June, 2018