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Sunday, 6 April 2008

Archibald “mediocre”: McDonald

Over at The Australian, where national art critic Sebastian Smee runs an efficient operation, editors decided this year to allow him to post a sound recording (with basic visuals) on the same page as his run-down of the Archibald.

Smee praises the judges’ selection of Del Kathryn Barton’s “audacious” and “ardent” self-portrait with her two young children. It is an unusual choice, says Smee, because judges are wont to favour ‘cooler’, more “philosophical” expressions in paint.

“If an emotion is gestured at, best that it be melancholic, couched in the consolations of philosophy, rather than genuinely ardent.” This conservatism is built into the fabric of the prize and results from the reality - possibly surprising to many - that judging is carried out by a group of people more often drawn from the corporate world, than that of art.

The trustees number eleven and are “appointed by the NSW Governor on the recommendation of the Minister for the Arts”, according to the relevant section of the Art Gallery of New South Wales Act 1980. So as not to completely put the bite on flair and inspiration, the Act also stipulates that “at least two of whom shall be knowledgeable and experienced in the visual arts”.

But who are they?

  • Steven Lowy (shopping centres)
  • David Gonski (lawyer)
  • Sandra McPhee
  • David Baffsky (hotel management)
  • Guido Belgiorno-Nettis (engineering)
  • Anne Fulwood (media)
  • Irene Lee (BA, history of art, lawyer)
  • Dr Lindy Lee (lecturer, Sydney College of the Arts)
  • Prof Janice Reid (Vice-Chancellor, University of Western Sydney)
  • John Schaeffer
  • Imants Tillers (artist)
  • Peter Francis Young (MBA)

I think Smee’s summation of the overall trend in talking about Barton’s “aesthetic daring” and “emotional daring” and that “traditionally” the prize goes to ‘cooler’ images, is apt.

Over at The Sydney Morning Herald, John McDonald states that “the weird stuff, all the kitsch, all the eccentricities” were left for Jane Watters (SH Ervin Galley director) and Susi Muddiman (professional art curator) to “pick over” when putting together the annual Salon des Refuses.

Chosen to accompany his article is Stephen Nothling’s Self Portrait out the Front, which McDonald says “may or may not be taken as irony”. I certainly took it in this way. In fact, there is something deeply wrong about the picture, which is done in a sort of kitsch-naïve style that leaves everything up to the imagination while evading irony by seemingly stating the obvious.

I noted that the two most-prominent trees - the jacaranda that McDonald describes and the bouganvillea - are both imports (one from South America and one from the eponymous island near Papua New Guinea). As the eye scans across, from left to right, you suddenly catch the car in the driveway.

For me, this felt wrong, and all of a sudden. My aesthetic hackles went up and my eye stopped right there. Then immediately afterward I saw the seccateurs held in the subject's left hand, and the cut flowers in his right. Finally, I noticed the dropped bike, which raised the obvious question: where are the kids?


If this figure is a member of that favoured class of “working families", he seems awfully alone. The pathos of cut flowers (destined to be ‘taken inside’), which are rendered in gorgeous, intimate detail, allies itself to the emptiness of the scene the painter has constructed so that your eye travels from left to right.

This man does not seem to be in paradise (the word blazoned across his T-shirt) but, rather, in some kind of self-imposed purgatory.

At some point (we hope) the kids will run screaming around the side of the bright pink bungalow, the screen door will fly open and the ‘missus’ will step onto the veranda with a conventional message: “c’mon, lunch is ready”. Standing in front of the picture we wait in vain.

It should be noted that the cropping of Nothling's work, here (and which matches the Herald's cropping), is not true to the full extent of the actual canvas. To see the full-sized painting, you must visit the gallery.

Another point: the Art Gallery of NSW does not print colour illustrations of exhibited works but the Moran prize does. Comprehensive, full-colour catalogues of Moran entries (painted portraits and photography) are free when you enter the exhibition. You can drop a few coins in a box near the door, but there's no obligation to do so.

Among the Wynne refuses at Observatory Hill we have, for me, a spectacular celebration of the beauties of pre-stressed concrete in Tom Carment’s Concrete Wings, The M5, which could be a painting of the Lighthorse Interchange but is not. The technology is the same, the location is different.

I particularly loved the imaginative compositional ideas of Ishbel Morag Miller’s Streetscapes - Glebe. Here, as in Carment’s painting, the routine elements of our visual landscape are jostled together with the intention of recognising how important this aspect of our lives is. These are things we cannot escape, regardless of how often we buy a ticket to a sunny island stranded in the tropics.

For this reason, too, Chris O’Doherty’s Hitchhiking on the F3 (Wet Day) is pleasurable. The short prose paean written for his prize entry is included by the curators on the wall sticker. In it, O’Doherty says the F3 is his “favourite” highway because of the way the sandstone has been cut and blasted, striking a path to unplanned beauty.

Another rendition of daily reality is Jo Shand’s King St. Afternoon. In this medium-sized canvas, the artist has captured the north-east vantage of this famous street, at a point where it curves northward. Traffic combines with nineteenth-century shopfronts. Stylistically, Shand’s decision is to appropriate the classical free-form of the kind of cheap, kitsch paintings you used to be able to buy from a door-to-door salesman.

Or, that was brought back from Paris by your travelling aunt, and which shows a generically ‘romantic’ view of a side-street of the city of lights. Geraniums, crumbling facades, lacework iron balconies, striped awnings. Shand’s tone is thus both ironic and emotional. How is Newtown to be ‘imagined’ by Sydneysiders? Is it the analogue of Paris or is it a determined attempt to recreate the ‘alternative’ lifestyle we instantly contemplate when the word ‘Paris’ is spoken.

How many American writers, for example, descended on Paris in the first half of last century looking for the kind of liberal environs they despaired of finding at home. Where was Lolita published, for example?

Another stand-out, for me, was Vayu’s portrait of Martin Sharp, the reinventor of Australian kitsch. Here, he stands looking a bit glum and a bit smug at the same time. The necessity, in Australia, of burying your light under a bushel is manifest in this piece. But this also means that the artist - or any deep thinker - is privileged by exclusion, because in this place there’s no dialogue (or very little). The locus of transgression is both a refuge and a cage.

It should also be noted (because I visited the Moran at the State Library also) that O’Doherty is depicted twice this year. Once by Leo Robba (at the SH Ervin) in Australian Gothic, and once by Steve Lopes (State Library). This personality’s iconic status would almost justify a retrospective of paintings done that include him. I wager there’d be at least two dozen floating round the art world.

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