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Friday, 7 March 2008

Del Kathryn Barton's mother picture "beats Heath ledger picture" opines a mendacious sub at The Sydney Morning Herald.

And the journo at the gallery managed to corner a (clearly bored-stiff) Edmund Capon for the requisite sound-bite, during which the doyen of Asian art allowed it was likely that a decision in favour of the actor's portrait could have been seen as a stunt.

But did this sway the judges? I hope not.


Barton, an extraordinarily aticulate brusher, whose lively voice I caught while waiting for a friend to do some pressing business in Quay Street, is a decent choice.

The best, in my opinion, was by painter Hong Fu (one of eight with Chinese names among the finalists).

It is of Dr Joseph Brown, "who arrived in Melbourne as a 14-year-old Jewish refugee with his impoverished father and five siblings" (according to The Age, 11 May 2004), and who "ended up with doctorates from three universities and an art collection worth $60 million".


But Barton, one of whose drawings I enjoyed last year at another AGNSW exhibition, is something of a flavour-of-the-month. Her works sell for six figures. Despite the wealth, she sounded excited to have won the Archibald Prize.

Sebastian Smee, in The Australian (29 February 2008), wrote that Fu's painting "has real presence". I delightfully agree. "It uses an array of different descriptive modes to arrive at a portrait that looks traditional but is in fact beguilingly original."

Another stand-out for me is Ben Quilty's Self portrait after Madrid. It's a muscular take on a face otherwise remarkably regular, in a typical Anglo way, and it does not perish in memory.


What struck me in Fu's painting are the fresh 1970s modalities: a gaunt, umber cloud is thrown casually across the back of Dr Brown's head. It contains rich echoes of (for me) byegone days spent fumbling round the galleries in Paddington.

I also love the way Dr Brown's starched collar (remnant of East-European decorum) is mirrored by a polygonal hill (or pyramid) that crisply staples the sitter's rumpled garments to the paving of Fu's bright canvas. This last is a delicious compote of drab greens and burnt browns we recognise in memories of organic abstractions from a lost and benevolent age.

Barton's voice transcript follows.

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This is a painting, ever since I became a mother a little over five years ago, that I've been trying to find time to make.

So entering this year's Archibal with a self-portrait as a mother was the perfect excuse to sort of give myself a deadline to make that painting.

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The reporter squeezes pathos into a track, segueing from the statement as to Barton's work being "not controversial" to noting that the Heath Ledger one was "painted shortly before he died". It's a clumsy movement from sunshine to the interior of a suburban pub on a Friday night: a locus of clammy cameraderie that I'm sure such as Ledger's family would prefer to overlook.

The implication is that celebrity can cast some of its shine onto visual arts that do not depend on short-term favouritism for an admiration future generations will be unlikely to transfer to cinema icons except with the salty chuckles that will thrive only within a naughties retro rave party.

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