It was a sunny Sunday, so a trip to the city seemed a pleasurable possibility. Sydney’s harbour looks spectacular on days like this: a bright, blue sky with a slight breeze after a period of heavy rain. Why not visit the Art Gallery NSW to see the Archibald exhibition? So it was agreed. As we were preparing for an early start, the news report told of an emergency re-enactment that was going to take place in the city that morning. It was a full dress rehearsal of the likely response to the situation of the city being hit by a large passenger plane. This was no time to go to the centre of Sydney. Streets would be closed; transport services would be disrupted: the city would be chaotic. So we postponed our journey to the afternoon by which time the reported rehearsal was to be completed. How can such a practice session be taken seriously when the fuselage is a line of buses and passengers are cardboard cutouts? Can panic be rehearsed? Can pain be a pantomime? Can shock be stimulated/simulated? Such events seem to be more like an expensive training session for actors.
When we reached the Manly ferry terminal just before noon, it was clear that most other folk had decided to do the same as us; to go out and enjoy the splendid afternoon. Did they all wait until the crash games had been completed? Crowds milled around the open spaces shoulder-to-shoulder, coming and going, filling every void available. This was the cliché 'sea of people.' It was almost intimidating. One is quickly reminded that Sydney is a large city
There was only a short ‘gelati’ wait for the ferry that was filled to standing point before leaving for the city. The harbour looked wonderful, aglow. The prospect of the harbour surroundings from the front deck seats made one appreciate Sydney once again, an experience made all the more beautiful by the wonderful day. By the time the ferry turned west, bringing the bridge and opera house into view, most of the passengers had moved forward, blocking the panorama of those who remained seated. Mobile phones were elevated above heads to snap the icons that still had an amazing ability to attract the attention of the visitors. Selfie after selfie was taken as excited tourists, (one assumes locals are more blasé about these structures), struggled to fix their image in juxtaposition with both the shiny shells and the steel arch, to capture the ‘I was there’ moment for ‘ME’ to 'post' and ponder the responses later. This is the era of the self-centred, self-important individual being impressed with the self in all of its various expressions and impressions.
Circular Quay was no less busy than Manly. Crowds weaved criss-cross, as warp and weft, with masses of bodies amazingly managing to avoid collisions by subtly respectful mutual adjustments. Elizabeth Farrelly would have been be pleased. Her piece promoting her planning vision for Sydney spoke of ‘the herd-patter of countless walking feet’ - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2016/09/the-third-way-of-planning-for-sydney.html There were plenty of walking feet here, but no patter, or any ‘solar tram’s whoosh.’ In spite of the ‘countless’ numbers, Sydney had not been much improved at all! One needs more than poetic words and quaint images to improve a dysfunctional planning system. It is too simplistic, almost diagrammatically naive, to assume walking is better than driving; that driver-less, solar trams are superior to motor vehicles. One could summarize this approach as being formulated by a lazy, cliché 'futuristic' vision of hope.
The train took us to St. James station. It was almost a seamless connection. We strolled along the short walk past Greenway’s church, through the hospital grounds and across Hyde Park to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The walk revealed a good cross section of Sydney: the homeless at the station; the quiet historic church; the formal, grandly glassy courts ( closed); the visitors at the hospital; the sunbathers on the grass; the spruikers at the speaker’s corner; the diners at the cafe; the visitors coming to and going from the gallery: Sydney has a very diverse population with divergent interests and lifestyles.
Art Gallery NSW
After leaving the coats and bags at the entry, one lined up to get tickets; only then could the Archibald exhibition space be approached. After the usual frustrations of annoying queues and fumbling service with its time-wasting chatter, the tickets were purchased and we were able to move off. There was a sense of the familiar about this journey: it lacked immediate interest and relevance beyond what it has always been. The walk down the stairs recalled every descent over the years – the same; but this was leading to the 2016 Archibald. It appeared that very little had been designed for this special exhibition. It must be a good money-spinner for the gallery that uses standard spaces for this significant event with what appeared to be a brazen cost-saving strategy. Very little effort seemed to have been made for anything, neither the entry, the approach, nor the exhibition itself. The graphics were almost non-existent, such was their meagre blandness; their grey, poorly-located insignificance.
Where does one start when one moves into an exhibition? Well, at the beginning like everyone else. After realising the silliness of the possibility that one might be engaged with this particular group of people that one had entered with for the whole display if one goes logically, sequentially, as masses usually do, one then adopts the path-of-least-resistance strategy where one slips across to any painting that has no great number of people around it; and again and again zigzagging through the spaces and the crowds. Eventually this ad hoc approach allows one to see everything with some degree of physical comfort in personal space, rather than becoming a pawn in the tide of humanity all doing likewise because that is how it is done. A quick summing-up-tour can be used to gather perceptions together, and to double-check to make sure that nothing has been missed. So the hit-and-miss movements began. We both went our different ways, only to occasionally see each other throughout these chess movements, and agreed to meet at the end.
The surprise was that there were some interesting works. Previous years had made one depressed, with the display being made up of predictable sets of submissions, paintings that could be categorized into a series of similar strategies: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/archies-2012.html This 2016 Archibald did have some sets, but scattered amongst these were some ‘disruptive’ paintings that astonished: the predictable mould was tested. One common theme that was easily recognized was the repetition of the ‘super real’ style in paintings that record every wrinkle, freckle and hair with the nuance of an enlarged photograph. One wonders: why not take a photograph and avoid the effort of attempting to paint one? The skill could be admired, and the work could be examined in intimate detail with the stunned amazement of the disbelieving eye, but the question still nagged: what did this painting of a photographic image bring to the outcome? Was one to merely be stunned by the technique? Indeed, one wondered if the painting used a photograph to ‘see’ the face in this particular manner. The eye does not really see things in this fuzzed, precise, optical way; it brings more than this exact observation to its seeing. Indeed, the act of inspection seemed likely to intrude too much into personal space.
As one moved around, other themes became obvious, but these were interesting rather than seen as powerfully onerous clichés – again. There were the traditional portraits, images that we expect when one walks through an art gallery that labels the subjects of the various approaches; and there were the brashly bold pieces that applied paint liberally in order to express character, that of the sitter and/or of the artist, with the spreading swipe of the palette knife. Some works held a presence, while others remained lumps and layers of paint hopefully looking for the onlooker’s eyes to make some sense of things out of this value-and-style-free approach: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2017/01/herzog-de-meuron-architecture-with-no.html This approach appeared to use the intimidation of art displayed in a gallery context to challenge visitors to declare these works as a concern: dare one do this? When viewing such pieces, the art gallery visitor is reluctant to label the work as a meaningless mess, just because it has been selected to be hung in this context. The premise is that the work must have something going for it because it has been selected to be here: if only! The sad outcome is that the viewer is made to feel inferior, inadequate. This circumstance is usually embroidered with discouraging jargon - see JARGON in the sidebar.
The tiny painting
The interest was in the experimental works. One painting used veneer inlays to define the broad massing and detailed parts before the application of colour. This was a lovely surprise that intrigued the eye as it studied the illustrated eyes and their making. Another portrait was a montage of beautifully detailed painted animals that were collected and assembled to make the head and shoulders of what at first appeared to be a ‘green man’ image. There were a few collages that made one look, and look again at the technique and the unique expression that the method offered. There were the gigantic images that expressed the portrait as the whole body, larger than life. These pieces displayed a mastery of managed paint as well as a self-assured skill with scale, but in an odd way they intimidated with their size and identity. One stood and stared at the crutch, and then raised the head as if in an apology, to greet the face. It appeared an inappropriate strategy to use for a politician, a profession that is self-assured and pushy enough without having this quality emphasized in their image.
Note 'artful' placing of explanatory notes - guess which one is referring to what!
Then there were the few special experimental pieces that explored individuality in a different way. One took identity literally and reproduced papers and passports along with the experience of cultural change and plastic surgery; another appeared more a cartoon style that made one think of Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith and the argument that this generated: portrayal or caricature? The judges avoided this potential problem by not selecting the work for any award! These works forced one to ask about the idea of a portrait and made 2016 Archibald intriguing, different: edgy. There was skill and experiment here, commitment that proclaimed a presence and a future rather than any cliché reaction.
The few miniatures astonished. Here one saw the variation, the contrast between the quick expression with easy subtle colour and careful, broad viewing, and the intricate detail of fine, laboured effort and precise seeing. These tiny pieces made one look closely, almost in disbelief. It was a similar but different emotion to that expressed in the response to the photographic identity. Here one could not comprehend how so much could come from so little. The admiration in the amazement turned to concern as one wondered why one of these works was not declared the winner. These works not only had a subtle painterly skill, but they held their astonishing strength in spite of their tiny place on the wall. The detail of the Whiteley portrait (Wendy Whitely by Natasha Bieniek) was as intricate as that of the ‘green man,’ but the judges appeared unmoved with both. There were no commendations. Did the judges fear there was a risk in choosing any of these stunning paintings? One felt that some works might have fared better in the Sulman.
The authority of the gallery display - the untouchables.
When the winner was seen, one was disappointed: George of Masterchef fame was not the best painting on the wall: then it was noticed that it was the hangers’ choice. Finally the winner was noticed: Barry Humphries in stage light. This painting displayed more style and greater skill than the packing room prize; but one sensed that the judges must have thought that the Archibald had to be a classic ‘portrait’ – a formal head; readily recognisable; and of a reasonable size appropriate to the monetary value and the prestige on offer. It seemed that one could not have the public commenting that so much was given for so little! Humphries won: it is a beautiful face, precisely characterized under the detailing of sharp stage lighting. It even had an alluring touch of glitter; was it one or was it two pieces that I could see occasionally catching the eye in the flash of reflected display lighting? It was a very nice touch: but one did wonder about the more quirky but astonishingly detailed ‘green man’ and the intricate brilliance of the tiny but completely articulate Whitely. Why did the judges not recognise these works as ‘winners’?
But this was not just the Archibald Prize exhibition: some selected Sulman and Wynne Prize submissions were on display too. As one moved through the bland, white spaces, it was not the signage that told of the change in zones, but the subjects. One stood puzzled for a while wondering how this image could be a portrait, (one never pre-judges in a gallery), when it suddenly became obvious that this was the beginning of the Sulman exhibit. A similar, but not as surprising a transition, led one into the Wynne display area. This really was a cheap display spread out in standard white rooms with the minimum expenditure possible. Colour would have helped, but even this, and bold graphics, were skimped on. The graphics were there, in grey letters mounted high, for no one to see.
The Sulman was a concern, offering what appeared to be a bit of everything. Just what are the parameters for this prize? Where do these works stand in Australian art, and its future? It looked as though the pieces could be anything but a portrait or a landscape; and it was: an ad hoc assemblage of things that didn’t fit comfortably anywhere else - a bit here, a bit there: chooks, dogs, witches, houses, signs, silos, etc. in a random variety of styles and techniques. There was a sense of experiment about the whole exhibition; a silent maybe, ‘have-a-go’ feel to the works. How on earth did the judges decide that the winner was the stylised buildings, the architectural montage? The painting of the silos was impressive, but the judges thought otherwise. Playing too safe yet again?
The Wynne was an equal worry. Landscape art seems to fall into the obvious slots: the fuzzy realism, the ‘modern’ abstract approach, the object/thing, the diagrammatic form, and the impressionist visions. The judges played safe and chose an aboriginal painting that apparently represented landscape: who knows but the specific tribe? It was a beautiful painting, but was it just too much of a cliché – a safe cringe that allowed the judges to avoid any other commitment? This painting held more power than any other, so why worry? One might have liked to have seen some new beginning in Australian landscape painting, but it was not to be. Just what is the future of landscape painting in Australia? It seems to have lost its way. There was not the promise here that the Archibald revealed.
After the return stroll around all of the works on display to revise and review, one filed out into the dim, shady void of the gallery through the ‘Sulman’ area. Here was a place to allow visitors to record their particular, personal preference. It was an uninspiring area that confirmed the lack of effort made for this exhibition. Is the gallery really so cash-strapped, or does it just not care?
On leaving this drab area, we moved out and up past an Islamic calligraphy exhibit, so we entered, to discover a marvellous world of rigour, beauty and meaning: Korans, scrolls, calligraphy on pots, buildings, etc. It was a wondrous world of integrated meaning in text, form and function. The words of Martin Lings echoed in the silence: “One cannot marvel enough” – such was the astonishment in the viewing of these works. It made the Archibald/Sulman/Wynne exhibition too proud about its weakness; too shallow with its thinking; too self-interested in its self-conscious efforts; just too much meaningless self-expression and self-importance.
One was tired after these gallery visits but had to quickly peruse the set of one hundred Japanese prints on display nearby: the floating world. It was an unfair time to see these. One would have to come again, refreshed, to enjoy these works that appeared laboured: or was one labouring under the overload of exhibitions?
Note number reference to identify the paintings - why so high?
Moving on was prompted by the intrusive announcement that the gallery would soon be closing, a sounding that was both overly formal and rudely threatening. We strolled out through the shop. It is always interesting to see the books on the shelves. The knick-knacks can be overlooked as kitsch, but the books usually displayed a unique variety within their specialities. One of the first publications seen was the small book of all the Archibald finalists, simply titled 2016. The cover displayed a portion of the Bieniek Whiteley miniature, much enlarged. At least it was given some recognition. Inside one could see the giant images made small, and every other variation of size to suit the selected format. Such is the trick, the illusion of the printed painting. One was immediately made aware of the importance of seeing originals: reproductions make everything equally glossy and equally removed from the reality of the made item – its presence as colour, texture and size: its particular light. What do we lose with anything printed? What has the computer printer done to our ordinary experience, even of handwriting, let alone all other images: text? Yet we know most things today through the reproduced image. One has to be concerned with this disfigurement that enlightens wrongly and unevenly.
On leaving the building, one reflected on the 2016 Archibald. Unlike the Sulman and Wynne, it was a cause for hope. There was rigour, skill, interest in experiment in these portraits: something of substance. It was a new Archibald feeling that gave one confidence that our era has talent and skills beyond the cliché ordinary. The Sulman and Wynne left one feeling that there was also a void in the art world too, where lost souls stagger around searching with just too much self-conscious effort: but one has to acknowledge, John Betjeman-like, the effort that had been made.#
It was only the gallery itself that failed to live up to the new, and to make an effort. One was asked to stroll out and in of ghost-white spaces melding into a maze of undifferentiated zones that delineated nothing of the changes from Wynne landscapes to Sulman works to Archibald portraits. One had to stumble through, discover differences and question the relevance before one could realise the category, and perhaps notice grey graphics declaring something one was supposed to assume was meaningful - like some of the texts telling of the works on the walls. Here ‘arty’ setouts had little relevance to references, leaving one baffled unless, in the Archibald, one could recognise the face or the painter’s technique: likewise elsewhere. It was a poor effort – lazy, careless; cheap; apart from the cost of entry! There seemed to be more interest in the diagram of the arrangement than the relevance of the information.
Colour on the walls and good graphics would have made an enormous difference, as would have even a subtle delineation of the various exhibition areas. Guessing is not good enough; and cliché white does not always make for a good display space. The gallery needs to do much better. The problem of good display arose for the calligraphy and the 100 moon prints too. It appears to be a repeated concern, a matter that galleries make no commitment to: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/07/on-exhibitionism-art-of-display.html
We retraced our steps: out down the grand stairs; over the road; past the cafe and the spruikers, who were still engaging the crowds with their raw and raucous enthusiasm; across the park, now more shaded; through the hospital (sorry, the wrong way); over the road to the courts and the beautifully modest church; into the station. The homeless were asleep. Bits of pizza lay on the ground beside spilled milk, spread blankets and sprawled limbs. Once we had sorted out the maze of the tiled station passageways and finally discovered the correct platform, (poor graphics again!), we were able to get the train back to Circular Quay. Here the ferry arrived on schedule. The staff spent a lot of time cleaning it out, and then we were off, fully loaded. The crowds must be going home at the end of the day out. This time we had rear seats. The sunset's yellows and reds were astonishing. Back at Manly, the crowds filtered out into the suburban maze, we found the car and we were soon home. It was a busy but enjoyable afternoon: more plus than minus; more hope than despair, although disappointments were never far away.
MORE GALLERY SNAPSHOTS
A mall space
The high sign identifying the Wynne zone
Sorry, all seats are taken.
Where can I sit?
Is this the Sulman?
The tiny Whiteley portrait in the midst of others
Considering the winner
The entry into the Sulman zone
A tall sign writer?
The high sign identifying the Sulman zone
Variations in the Sulman
All gallery photographs in this blog are casual snapshots of the paintings on display in the Art Gallery NSW.
For the lists of winners and finalists for the three prizes for 2016, see:
Archibald Prize https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/prizes/archibald/2016/
The very tiny paintings - too small to win?
The montage self-portrait
John Betjeman once commented on the performance that had put his poems to song and dance that he admired the effort, but thought that it added little to the poetry.