The Archibald Prize 2018

May 11, 2018
And the winner is.... Yvette Coppersmith's 'Self-portrait after George Lambert'. Don't ask me why.

Well I got it completely wrong this year, although Vincent Namatjira got a “highly commended” as runner-up. Yvette Coppersmith’s Archibald Prize winner: Self-portrait after George Lambert wouldn’t have been in my top 20. After due consideration, it still wouldn’t be in my top 20. It seems to me like a stiff, mannered picture that bears no resemblance whatsoever to a work by Lambert – the most sensual and imaginative of portraitists. If the Trustees of the AGNSW had given the prize to Namatjira they could have boasted that every major award went to an indigenous artist this year. How could they pass up such a publicity opportunity? Having gone wild for Aboriginal art they seem to have suffered a last minute failure of nerve. Anyway, here’s the column as it went to print.

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In 1988 there were 25 finalists in the Archibald Prize exhibition. By 1998 the tally had expanded to 29. By 2008 the trustees were hanging 40 portraits. This year there are no fewer than 59, up from 46 in 2017. The duration of the show is also increasing, with the 2018 version running for a month longer than its predecessor. Are we to assume the Archibald is getting bigger and better?

It doesn’t feel like that, just messier, with such a swarm of tiny pictures one wonders what the Trustees were thinking. They may have decided that the small entries were qualitatively better than the big ones and deserved to be hung in greater numbers. The problem is that most of these small pictures have zero chance of taking out the prize and only serve to give an impression of variety and abundance.

Last year, like most years, it was fairly easy to pick the winner (unless you happen to be a betting agency, which always sends punters on the wildest of goose chases). This time around it’s not at all clear which way the trustees will go. As I’m writing this column a week in advance of the announcement I’m obliged to have a punt of my own.

Paul Jackson's 'Alison Whyte, a mother of the Renaissance'

Paul Jackson’s ‘Alison Whyte, a mother of the Renaissance’

The image that stayed with me, after a long examination of the show was Paul Jackson’s Alison Whyte, a mother of the Renaissance. Jackson says the actress’s face “has an Elizabethan feel”, and has therefore portrayed her with an elaborate lacey ruff. I don’t know how one judges a person’s Elizabethanness, but it’s certainly a striking image. Red hair, red dress and red lipstick are set against a deep, shadowy green that dramatises the contrasts.

Add a set of pale blue eyes and one is left with a slightly unnerving portrait that suggests a simmering intensity behind the blank expression. I’m not sure I’d hang it on the lounge room wall, but it’s one of the few pictures that stand out from an even, and – if truth be told – pretty ordinary field.

Anne Middleton's 'Guy'

Anne Middleton’s ‘Guy’

Jackson’s brand of near-photographic realism can produce dull results if an artist relies solely on their ability to apply paint in neat, tiny increments. A good example is Anne Middleton’s head-and-shoulders portrait of another actor, Guy Pearce, in which every pore, freckle, wrinkle and whisker is recorded with manic precision. We can be impressed by the artist’s perseverence but it’s a lifeless enterprise.

With his manipulations of colour and tone, let alone the weird device of the ruff, Jackson tells us a lot more about Whyte than Middleton does about Pearce. We see Whyte in mid-role, dressed for the stage. It remains ambiguous whether we are looking at the actor or the character she is portraying. With Pearce the artist has opted for a kind of naked honesty, as if wanting to show the ‘real’ person behind the mask.

Alas, in portraiture the pursuit of sincerity and honesty often results in nothing more than cliché, because it’s literally impossible to produce a totally honest image of another person, particularly one who is posing for the painter or the camera. The more detailed the picture the more glaring the impossibility because the idiosyncratic element of style has been eliminated.

Nowadays a likeness is possibly the least important part of a successful portrait. It was once thought that the invention of the camera would kill painting but it actually meant that artists were liberated from the burden of exact representation. A few painters in the show avail themselves of this freedom.

Vincent Namatjira's 'Studio self-portrait'

Vincent Namatjira’s ‘Studio self-portrait’

One such artist is Vincent Namatjira, who portrays himself sitting with his feet up on a couple of paint tins after a hard day’s work in the studio. The picture behind him shows Chucky Berry and his grandfather, Albert Namatjira, taken from a wellknown photo of the artist in the pickup truck he was gifted by Ampol. This completely unfussy picture tells a story about the changing patterns of life in Aboriginal communities and the way the art of painting is handed down from one generation to the next. The differences between those generations, however, are as profound as that between Chucky Berry’s rhythm and blues, and the 70s power pop of Kiss, the name emblazoned on Vincent’s t-shirt.

If I were the judge I’d happily give Namatjira the prize, and not simply because it would be a first-ever win for an indigenous painter – or because we get three figures for the price of one! If the Trustees were looking for a real bargain they might have tried Joanna Braithwaite’s Hall of fame – portrait of Pat Corrigan. There are more than a dozen Pats on offer in an accomplished piece of artistic ventriloquism.

Joanna Braithwaite, 'Hall of fame - portrait of Pat Corrigan'

Joanna Braithwaite, ‘Hall of fame – portrait of Pat Corrigan’

One can never be too confident when it comes to second-guessing the trustees, but in some instances they are totally predictable. For instance, when you’re aiming to extract a few hundred million from the state government for a new building you don’t reject portraits of the Premier or the Arts Minister.

Gladys Berejiklian stares out us from a portrait by the reliable Mathew Lynn, although it’s not exactly a relaxed and comfortable pose. The Premier seems to be hanging on to a desk top as desperately as she is hanging on to her job. She may have a slightly better chance of taking out the Archibald than winning the next election.

Mathew Lynn's 'Gladys Berejiklian'

Mathew Lynn’s ‘Gladys Berejiklian’

Arts Minister, Don Harwin, looks more colourful in Mirra Whale’s portrait. He appears to be wearing war paint. It’s not a masterpiece but it does suggest the Jekyll and Hyde aspect of a minister who is genuinely passionate about his portfolio, yet one of the worst Svengalis when it comes to the culture of secrecy that attends all this government’s most perfidious decisions.

Jamie Preisz’s portrait of Jimmy Barnes, which won the Packers’ Prize this year, must also have a slim chance of taking out the main award, although its theatricality verges on melodrama, with hard man Barnes wrapping his hands as if for a prize fight. Perhaps the trustees might fancy the graphic directness of Benjamin Aitken’s portrait of Natasha Bienek, or Jun Chen’s Judith Bell, which may be a little too gloomy for its own good. Chen is not the first Queensland artist who has felt the need to overcompenate for all that sunshine.

Natasha Walsh, 'Numb to touch (self-portrait)

Natasha Walsh, ‘Numb to touch (self-portrait)

Among the teensy-weensy works that have spread like fungus after the rain, I thought the two stand-outs were Natasha Walsh’s Numb to touch (self-portrait) and Karyn Zamel’s Marina. Both have a tactile dimension that is missing in many other entries. Ben Smith’s portrait of Tony Albert is strong picture but I’m a little confused by the halo. Noel Counihan may have given us a crucified Albert Namatjira in 1959 but I’m not convinced that any of today’s artists qualify for sainthood.

The Archibald Prize, 2018
Art Gallery of NSW, 12 May – 9 September, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 5 May, 2018