Browsing through the image gallery of The Australian that contains all of the 2012 Archibald Prize finalists - 41 in total this year; (see http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/visual-arts/gallery-fn9d3avm-1226300083796?page=1) - it became clear that these paintings fall into familiar sets that one feels have been seen before. Perhaps this experience recalled last year’s Archibald exhibition, but the phenomenon brings other venues to mind too. The different ‘sets’ of paintings have a style; a technique; an approach or strategy that one has seen elsewhere. It is a strange awareness, because the painting being looked at is not one that has been previously exhibited. The encounter has been experienced formerly, when, at other times and on different occasions, these sets materialize. Why? What is this?
There are the ‘super-realist’ paintings that beg the question: why not use the photograph rather than try to mimic one? Is it a strategy to use skill and technique in a game where the eyes are held in a mesmerizing disbelief that claims attention? Then there are those paintings that are only about skill and technique. They scream out “Aren't I clever!” with such certainty that the subject matter – indeed, the painting itself – is buried under this burdensome layering of incredible effort. There are the thickly applied, palette-knifed-layered oozings that transform themselves from tonnes of paint into an image or images, usually of big or very big faces. These bold gestural surfaces are usually laboured over on huge boards or canvases that overwhelm by their size as well as their chunky mass. Then there is the ‘me, me, me’ set that promotes the artist or a close or intimate friend in a quirky, personally meaningful arrangement or stance, sometimes with added notes and names giving a puzzling, somewhat explanatory exposé that is accompanied by a mystifying title. Here the meaning is so ambivalently private that one feels like an awkward outsider looking into an intimacy that should remain concealed.
Then there is the classic portrait as seen in portrait galleries. This is usually a little hazy, apparently to capture and display feeling. These works appear as just another head amongst the many seen in this set throughout the world, even though they may excel. There is the ‘raw guts’ image that uses boldness in style or subject, or both, to try to amaze, as if the wonder of art was simply shock. These sets have blood and innards oozing over the canvas, sometimes in an extravaganza of one great, bloody delight; at other times, these gruesome images are seen placed beside a classic portrait, as if the contrast held a critical message. Then there are the few that truly make one see again. These astonish, and draw one back to them as if by way of a challenge – a question seeking an answer that never comes; a desire for confirmation that is never received. Here wonder dances in its glory before disbelieving bodies.
There are what one might call ‘eye’ paintings in this category. This year’s Archibald Prize has two marvelous paintings of eyes. They are wonderful images: the eyes have it. Then there are other works that touch the borderlines of some of some of the sets in different ways, but manage to rise above the bland clichés these present to us. There are the ‘new’ paintings. These reveal something never before seen, but still familiar. The winner is interesting. It stands boldly outside of all the sets but almost gets involved in just about every one. Perhaps it is the Bosch diversion that gives it a different structure and ambition - a challenging reference that redirects?
In spite of the irony of this faceless portrait, the self-portrait is amazingly intimate. It is beautifully painted and offers an image that is fresh and vital in spite of its traditional technique. The ‘seen it all before’ sense of most of the finalists’ paintings is superceded in this enigmatic image that has personality, vigour and intimacy, as well as a confident brashness. Some of William Robinson’s paintings have this quality too. It is always disappointing to approach a new painting that one feels has been seen before as part of a stylistic or technical set. It is a deflating experience that one seeks to overcome by admiring the blatantly obvious; but to see something new is grand – exhilarating.
This criticism is no demand for things to be ever different and strange, or to fashionably admire or require the unique – here, the obvious quirkiness of a ‘no-face’ portrait. This painting is this but more. It is like an index. It establishes a place of its own. It has that newness that holds everything familiar, uniquely, in a manner that allows grace and simplicity - clarity and integrity - too glow in a way seen before, but now newly alive again. It is not just a dulling reference to a manner or to mannerisms - to styles or techniques. Rather it is a commitment to art itself - to its mystery that cannot be defined, but is known. This is never art for art’s sake. Nor is it art for the artist’s sake; or for self-expression. It is . . . well, art. Wherefore art thou art? It is a question that should never seek an answer for it will always be less. Religion manages to express the enigma most clearly: if you find the Buddha on the way, kill him.
It is an interesting aside to note that last year’s Doug Moran National Portrait Prize winner was also a ‘no face’ portrait. Unlike this photographically-perfect technique that seems to have learned a lot from the way a camera catches both the moment and light, this year’s Archibald winner has unique rigour and stamina. It is boldly fun and serious at the same time. There is no set of faceless paintings, although there could be. This year’s winner is not part of any set.
Neither was last year’s Archibald winner. Even though this portrait of the late Margaret Olley used chunks of paint in palette knife swipes as seen in the classic ‘ooze’ set, this small, pasty and sparse characterization makes it a real surprise. Most of the painting exposed raw canvas, covered with what looked like spontaneous gestures that resolved disbelief to become a true representation when there was none. It became Margaret Olley - crystal clear in its presence, alone - on its own - much like this year’s winner stands out from the remainder, although it involves them too.
Art is a puzzle, a mystery that needs no answer other than its earnest seeking. It is always more than sets, skill and style - but these are innately a part of its being.