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Monday, 31 March 2008

The Archibald is a three-in-one deal. You get the Sulman (best "subject painting, genre painting or mural project by an Australian artist") and the Wynne (best "landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours, or for the best example of figure sculpture by an Australian artist").

This year, it's more than just Kathryn Del Barton's 'mother picture'. It's more than Sam Leach's Hitler pose. It's more than the Packer's Prize. And it's more than the Heath Ledger portrait of Vincent Fantauzzo.

In the Wynne this year a standout for me is Maria Gorton's Ancient blue, which features a lovely set of deep blue elements: a lost cavern or a remote gorge where animals go to die.

In the Sulman there's Vilma Bader's Home brewed. She's doing a masters at Sydney Uni having completed a bachelor's at the National School of Art. I choose this one because it's a set of painted book jackets, mounted on the wall. I would love to list the titles included. The work taps into a long-running debate about an indigenous literature (is it being taught enough in schools and universities - this is one aspect of the public debate).

Also in the Sulman is Dallas Bromley's revolutionary The morning after - the party's over, which is done in what I learn is a signature style. This is compulsively Romantic, genre-based, and determinedly figurative.

That's Bromley's work at the top of this post. This one, named The Constant Adventurer, reminds me of the tunnel scene in Nabokov's Pale Fire, which is part of the narrative of the stalker Charles Kinbote. It has to do with the king in prison following the revolution in the northern country that is Kinbote's birthplace.

Lucy Culliton's Hartley landscape - cactus garden continues the figurative mode preferred (these days). It is full of a forceful red colour, which frames the pale green cacti of the name.

Also worthy of note are two works by James Powditch, both assemblages using rulers, pages from books, stamps, squares of wood and slats of wood laid horizontally to create a rich and retro effect. One is Superpower - made in Japan (Sulman). The other is Pulp - show us your map of Tassie II (Wynne).

Including the latter in the Wynne stretches the prize definition a bit, but his sleek assurance demands recognition. Which he has got from me.

Finally, a word about Leslie Rice's Quartered, drawn and hung: Adam Cullen on public display. Cullen is a 'controversial' artist, it seems. Rice's very dark pieces show body parts because in the old days it was customary for criminals convicted of serious crimes to be hung, drawn and quartered. Most people do not immediately acknowledge what this procedure entailed.

Rice gives the procedure contemporary relevance (possibly Sam Leach felt a similar sensation after his work was pilloried by a Jewish community spokesman).

It's also useful to note that Rodney Pople (who had a work showing in each prize, including the fantastic North South runway, Sydney airport (Wynne)) expressed a similar idea in his Archibald entry (Art is what you can get away with - self portrait) which uses the famous 'shooting' painting of Goya (circa 1814) to make a point about the public sphere in Australia.

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