Monday, June 13, 2011

SURPRIZES

The Art Gallery of New South Wales, 31st May 2011: the paintings hung for the Archibald Prize 2011 were on display. After walking through the familiar gallery spaces selected for this exhibition, one was left with the feeling that portrait painting in Australia is at a very low ebb. In short, the work was disappointing. The Gallery asks patrons to offer their opinion on the paintings and submit these so that the ‘People’s’ portrait can be nominated. This added another layer to the visit. Everyone seems to want to have a say. The packing room workers have already had their choice (Pat Moran by Vincent Fantauzzo: is this a shrewd move to keep it in the family?) There were more meat carcasses than persons in this portrait that made Francis Bacon (meat!) look mean. Yet the image of Moran was conventional, free from Baconesque distortions. The winner had been chosen too, but democracy seems to demand more – that the public should have a say – the People’s Choice, for what it is worth. Why? Is it just worth it for the publicity for the gallery, to encourage gallery visitations?

Moving slowly through the rooms in front of the chosen paintings, very few caused me to pause. There was only one outstanding painting – the winner. This was a stunning arrangement of thick - enormous - blobs of paint scattered sparsely on plain white canvas with a raw immediacy that materialised into the image of the familiar hatted head of Margaret Olley, but only when one stood away from the panel. It was not merely an image. Astonishingly it held every nuance one has come to see in and understand as this person’s features and character. The work by Ben Quilty was an amazing transformation of chunks of paint into gentle person. It was a skilful handling of masses of oil and a wonderful image of Ms Olley. So I didn’t bother to complete any form for the people’s nomination. Did it really matter? How was one to know if this voting was not going to be manipulated in any way?

The great disappointment was that it was difficult to pick a runner-up. I think that I might have chosen the portrait of gallery owner Ray Hughes. It glowed with personality in a rugged face that blushed as crusty paint over a central pot belly (not cast iron, but flesh). This body exuberance swelled over a rich Parisian bowl full of sweets – a pudding – and coloured the bulk of the canvas. The rustic face was nicely painted in much finely reworked, confident brush strokes and told of age and experience – a cheeky wisdom. The pretty pink shirt with fine white stripes defined profile of the body that filled the panel space over the lower pudding. This sweet, set alone on the void of a plain tablecloth, had an importance that seemed to define the colour choices for the portrait. It was delineated in a different style to the remainder of the work - as still life - and set things slightly askew. The face, high on the wall, was the last thing to be looked at here. The pot belly jumped out; the pudding (Paris might call it a sweet) defined the narrative that simply seemed to be that too much of a good thing gives you a big belly. The wonderful face was the last thing to be noticed. One had to look up to it, literally, after seeing the big, eye-catching belly, and then the pretty glass bowl. This fragmentation gave the portrait a somewhat schizophrenic presence. But I liked it much more than some of the others that told of private concerns like abortions, lost loves, or were poorly painted, like the self-portrait of 70-year old Ken Done: a plain, raw bright yellow background with a thick, quick black outline defining the head and shoulders, with a bolder brush stroke for the Hitler moustache. Was this hanging a 'thank you' gesture to an aging painter who has given Sydney and Australia such memorable graphics?

Strolling casually into other adjacent spaces, one discovered the Wynne Prize exhibition – gosh! Here the first prize for landscape painting or sculpture was given to the so-called sculpture that had a new motorbike shoved vertically into, and strapped onto, the rear basket of a old Eastern trishaw. Wow! One was left thinking that Richard Goodwin might have been better using this new bike on the road. It looked such a waste. The message he was seeking to transmit was not self-evident, nor did it reveal itself with time or distance. Even the title – Co-isolated slave – did not help here. This clutter all looked out of place. Was it some mystic revelation that I was missing, or was someone just being a smartarse? One was left puzzled, wondering why it had been selected as the winner. A quick walk around the gallery showed why. Landscape painting in Australia seems to be at a lower ebb than portrait painting. Bush fires, koalas, rocks, movie posters, and some native flowers seemed to be the limits of expression. It is a great disappointment especially with our expansive and beautiful country. There was little to compare between the sculptures and the landscapes. Some paintings were beautifully detailed and would have taken hours to complete. What a waste. The winner seemed a simple matter of expenditure and quick assemblage. Another ‘three-dee’ (dil-dum) item was a pair of boots made out of timber veneer. Ah! Is this a painted trees and wood link?

Then, on walking out, there was more: the Sulman Prize. What a bargain! The eye was caught by a wonderfully quirky image of a horse’s head in a red spotted bandanna centrally framed by the large entrance opening. It had a title referring to royalty - Princess Ann came to mind - but, in spite of its dominant presence and location, it was not the winner . . . strange. The chosen one was located anonymously amongst the rest of the entries. It was a gory image by Peter Smeeth called The Artist’s Fate. Gosh, this fellow must have some problems if he sees himself being treated in this manner – guts ripped open, eye poked out and testicles cut off by masked figures with a dog ready to clean up. Why was this selected? Empathy? One only needed to peruse the other exhibits to understand the title. It seemed that nearly all the other artists who had work exhibited should have been treated in this way. The standard was appalling. One can only be insulted by a so-called artist - 'a bullshit artist?' - hanging a canvas in reverse (framing and stapled side out) and calling it art. Was this entry mucked up at the last moment? Was it so bad that the jury decided not to expose it to the public? Maybe the jury thought the same about these artists as Smeeth does about – well, himself? What is the story here? What disappointments has he had in life? All I could feel was that it was a shame that the beautiful horse missed out on the first prize. Were the judges scared to offend the Royal reputation? Shucks. Let’s hope not. The strange thing was that this was the painting that had been singled out for a grand display, but not the award.

I walked out of all of these rather ordinary exhibitions feeling saddened by the state of art in Australia. Is this the best that can be done? These classic prizes surely encouraged the best available work in the country to be presented? It looked as though the artists were really struggling with their art. The astonishing thought was that if these works are what the jury had selected to be hung, what on earth must the remainder of submissions be like? Some of the material of the walls simply should not have been there. It looked as though the gallery was making up numbers just to have these exhibitions appearing reasonable, at least in quantity.

In a strange parallel, the Moran 2011 Prizes were being exhibited at the State Library of New South Wales. Why has Australia got two portrait prizes run in parallel? Is there a competition going on here between these institutions? The Moran Prize was for a portrait painting as well as a photographic prize, on two scales – contemporary general and schools. It included: The Doug Moran National Portrait Prize 2011; the Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize 2011; and the Moran Contemporary Schools Photographic Prize. So we went to see more portraits and the bonus photographs. It becomes confusing to recall specific works because one of the portraits was, unusually, in the Archibald and the Moran exhibition – ‘five bob each way’ for Deidre But-Husain: one with batman symbol, the other without? It is easier to recall the Moran paintings and photographs because the Moran prize had published a full colour Gallery Guide for its event. Unlike the Archibald that charged an entry fee for its exhibition, entry to the Moran exhibition was free. One now realised why there was so much hype about the People’s Choice. The only way to see the Archibald paintings that had been selected for exhibition was to pay this entrance fee. There was no guide to share with a friend. This made the Art Gallery look mean and greedy, especially with the very poor quality of its submissions. Suddenly the standing of the historic trilogy of prizes – Archibald, Wynne and Sulman - seemed to disappear, to lose their stature and significance. The smudging of these prizes together into a pay-for-one, get-two-free arrangement seemed to turn the displays into a crass supermarket promotion, with Wynne and Sulman becoming the sundry freebees, and suffering because of this. These prizes deserve better. Even if the work is poor, the exhibition experience must be stunning, whether it is paid for or not. Sadly even the display remains less than mediocre. The exhibitions felt as though they were demanding just too much effort that was only ever going to be addressed with a lazy nonchalance: just hang it! We still get paintings hung as twins to share a corner space that is occupied by two people seeking an appropriate viewing position for each, which happens to be the same location. Galleries should know better. It seems that they just don’t care how things are presented. It is alarming that even lighting gets no special attention other than just being switched on and off each day.Who cares if people will pay for this?

The Moran Gallery Guide is interesting. On looking through this colourful glossy book, one is immediately aware of the impact of the printing process on original images. After walking through the gallery spaces and studying the paintings of a variety of different sizes and textures, one sees in the guide the most rugged of surfaces presented as smooth as float glass, with large paintings reading as postage stamps, and miniatures actually appearing to be enlarged. Accuracy in colour reproduction appears to be the least of all problems. The changes in size and texture diminished the works. The bold dominance of the large had been lost, just as the mystery and intrigue of the tiny has been crudely exposed. Was this only a relative perception? One work was so small that it had been detailed with a pin. One was incensed by the changes that the publishing of them had made to these images. The paintings are all out of scale and character. Works that had to be looked up to with a cranked neck because of their extreme height, are now humbled below the eye. Paintings that had to be looked at from about 200mm because of their size and amazing detail, all shrouded in a heavy frame, now looked larger, certainly more exposed than they were in real life. With at least one, the size and frame was intended to be a part of the emotional experience of the subject – Kathryn reading the letter that finalised her divorce. This had been replaced by a confident glossy clarity. One slowly becomes aware of the importance of the artists’ presentations, even size and type of frame or the lack of one is critical.

I don’t know the answer to this, but reproducing all images in scale might help with the comprehension of size in a guide, as would the publishing of the actual dimensions of the image. Only the artist’s name and the title of the work have been printed. Still, this is better than nothing – perhaps? Look at the Archibald experience. The thought did occur to me: just imagine how many things in this world that we have come to know as photographic images. Just imagine how differently we must know these things that have been so removed from their original context. Is this a problem? Are we living by misguided fantasies? Do we have parallel worlds in our understandings? The odd thing was that the portraits at Moran seemed of a better average standard than those of the archibald Prize. Why? More money? Well, on looking this up, the answer is ‘yes.’ Moran gives $150,000; Archibald gives $50,000.

The Moran prize was given to Vincent Fantauzzo. You may recall this name as the artist nominated as the Archibald Packing Room Prize winner. His winning Moran portrait was called Baz Lurhmann ‘off screen’. No meat carcasses here, not even a face. This was a large painting of the forehead of Baz complete with the Norman Gunston band-aid slashed across the centre of the panel, with his hands over his eyes just below. The dramatic lighting came from one side, highlighting the left side of the forehead and the left hand, with heavy shading in the background and to one side. One had to take the artist’s word for it - that this was indeed Baz Lurhmann. The painting was in dark tones, almost in only blacks and greys, but the printed image shows more muted flesh tones that I don’t recall. What was amazing was the gloss surface of this painting. Did this depth distract from the reading of the colour? The reproduction modifies the painting's size – it is much reduced – and the depth of this gloss. The original surface was almost picture perfect, a fact that reminded one of the glossy prints of the old black and white photographs, and resin coatings on surfboards. The first recollection begged the question: was this ‘portrait’ painted from a photograph?
After thinking more about this question, one realised that it was not only the gloss surface but also the image itself that prompted this doubt. Here a so-called portrait was illustrating one of those silently glimpsed, private moments in another’s existence that exposes some of the subtle reality of inner being. Such situations as these are often ‘caught on camera.’ Indeed, the parallel photographic exhibition had several of these candid shots – children looking funny; persons concentrating thoughtfully; teenagers pondering futures; gay greetings. Here, in Fantauzzo’s work, we see a similar gesture of silent, perhaps tired despair apparently ‘caught’ as a painting. Should portraits be more than this? Why paint what a camera is much better at capturing? Why copy the camera’s eye? Why spend so much time crafting a captured instant as a portrait? 

Strolling around the gallery again after separately studying the exhibited portraits, I asked myself, after knowing of the Archibald ‘People’s’ challenge, what would I choose? Well, after quickly discarding most of the paintings, no doubt for purely personal preferences, I chose an image by Debbie MacKinnon: Dicko. One could see the face here. That seemed to be a good start. It shimmered with a beautiful delicacy of finely managed paint. One could see that the artist had looked at this person, had learned about his being. The texture of the subtly worked surface seemed to glow with personality. The eyes beamed with a questioning presence. The accompanying text noted that Dicko’s comment had been that the painting showed more than he felt happy to have exposed. This could be seen. This is why I would have selected this painting over the more photographically emotional image of Baz.

Another work shone out – literally: Julia Holden’s Muse. This was a video piece projected as backlighting in a box, where drawings were, in cartoon-style, layered to progressively create the face from sequential line markings that came to form the head, the features, the process of applying make-up to prepare for the final portrait that completed the cycle. It was extremely skilful and challenged traditional concepts of portraits. Why was Baz OK but not this? Sentiment? The photographic prize winner was sentimental too – cricketer with child: Jack Ately’s World Rare Disease Day - Steve Waugh and Sarah Walker, photographed backstage at the Sydney Opera House. Who could complain about this winning? It would be unseemly to object to such situations and circumstances being rewarded. Are we moving into a new Victorianism: Neo-Vic? Here it is interesting to read Ruskin talking about the Pre-Raphaelites in 1854:
It was asserted that they did not draw in perspective, by men who themselves knew no more of perspective than they did of astrology; it was asserted that they sinned against appearances of nature, by men who had never drawn so much as a leaf or a blossom from nature in their lives. And, lastly, when all these calumnies or absurdities would tell no more, and it began to be forced upon men’s unwilling belief that the style of the Pre-Raphaelites was true and was according to nature, the last forgery invented respecting them is, that they copy photographs.
John Ruskin, Lectures on Architecture and Painting, Routledge, London, 1854, p.181.

So even in this early period of photography, the accusations of copying – no, of ‘forgery’ - were made. This is interesting because it seems that there was every expectation that the copying of photographs for paintings was not acceptable. We need to debate more about this today, especially with digital possibilities making everything much more open and flexible. My preference is that I would like to see painting reach out differently to photography, to explore other things. The possibility of copying makes one reflect on earlier images, and ponder the possibility, perhaps, of Quilty’s Ms Olley being painted from a photograph? Was it? There is no doubt that out of all of the portraits, Archibald and Moran, Quilty’s is the best of all: but the photograph? Forgery? If a photographic image was used here, the painting has transformed the original with amazing skill and panache rather than merely reproducing it or its character, as the Fantauzzo work seems to have done. One fears that the Archibald winner of 2010, the portrait of Garrumul, had photographic origins too. In attitude and angle, the painting appears identical to the surprising photo on the cover of his first CD. It is an image only matched by the second CD which opens to the amazement of hands. All of this talk of copying photographs, of course, could be one of those quirks of fate where the most odd of ideas and characteristics come in parallels: think of the light bulb; and calculus. Is this something like synchronicity? Either way, one would always hope for a difference in outcomes with different media. Why else paint? Why else use a camera?

It seems that there is something competitive between the ‘grandfather’ Archibald Prize and the ‘upstart’ Moran Prize? My disappointment was with the Archibald. It holds the prestige and the history. Even not knowing that the Moran prize gives $300,000 to artists in all of its prizes for painting and photography, it is the Moran prize that shows greater hope for the future by encouraging today’s youth. The Archibald may have to change or expand. The Moran Schools Photographic Prize generated an impressive array of submissions that stood proudly beside those of the Contemporary Photographic Prize. It must have been a marvellous experience for the students to see their works exhibited beside those submitted for the Contemporary Photographic Prize. They would have learned a lot.

All of these photographs provided a quality exhibition. Oddly, they were more broadly ‘interesting’ than the portraits. It may be that interest has no value or significance, but things appeared to be so. Was this to do with the greater diversity in photographic subject matter? Its immediacy? Apparent honesty? There were doubts here too. The dominant image of all of the photographs was the delightful, playful and colourful structured image of Gerard O’Connor: Beach. It recalled Charles Meere's classic 1940s painting Australian Beach Pattern. The happy exuberance in the O’Connor image, with its iconic central bare breast - no sentiment here! -  was photographed on tonnes of sand in the studio and then digitally enhanced with added images and juxtapositions. This raises a new question: in spite of all the capabilities of our new digital world, should a photograph be, as it were, manipulated as a painting?

Nothing is ever easy.

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