Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Personal favourites from the Archibald and Wynne prizes

Although purists tend to diminish their significance, the hanging of the finalists of the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes constitute the major visual art event in the Australian art calendar. The prizes are given each year in autumn. I went up yesterday to have a quick sticky-beak of the work of this year's finalists in the gallery. It was a sunny day and, inside, plenty of people were in the rooms even though it was a Tuesday. I had planned to avoid the crowds by visiting during the week.

The first painting I have chosen to talk about is ‘Hall of fame – portrait of Pat Corrigan’ by Joanna Braithwaite. This is an extraordinary work that condenses over a dozen portraits of the well-known art collector (from top left to bottom right are vignettes of works by Paul Newton, Adam Knott, Anne Zahalka, Michael Muir, Peter Smets, Euan Macleod, Alan Jones, Paul Newton, Nicholas Harding and Nigel Thompson) shown in a salon hang on a red wall. There’s also a self-portrait on the wall, over the model’s shoulder, showing the artist at work painting him in her studio. So you get about 17 portraits for the price of one. It’s a little overwhelming.

Corrigan’s involvement in freight forwarding businesses sometimes means he is confused with Chris Corrigan, of Patrick Corporation, according to Wikipedia. I have a memory of visiting Pat Corrigan’s home in Vaucluse when I was aged about 19 along with Pixie O’Harris, the Australian children’s book author and illustrator. My brother and I had grown up living in the house behind Pixie’s in Vaucluse and mum was a good friend of hers. Pixie encouraged me when I showed early promise in drawing. Corrigan’s house overlooked the harbour and he had paintings hanging on walls all over the place.

I find Braithwaite’s portrait of Corrigan somewhat suffocating and intense. It is contestable whether it constitutes a sympathetic portrait of her subject. She said in the comments that come with the painting that even though Corrigan had been depicted by so many artists over the years, hers was the first portrait by a woman artist. So perhaps she’s making a comment on the boy’s-club nature of business and public life in Australia generally. I don’t know. All I know is that her work sort of gives me the creeps.

The second painting I have chosen to include in this short review is Kirsty Neilson’s ‘Anxiety still at 30’, which the commentary says shows an aspect of the painter’s mental illness, of which she is aware. She says she has battled anxiety since she was 15 years old, and that on average one in four people will experience it. The self-portrait is almost entirely in monochrome, giving it a dream-like look and feel. The heavy shadow on the model’s neck is not quite apt given the angle from which the light source derives, but this element of the work adds drama to it. 

I find the rendering of the flesh particularly effective. The skin of the hand, which is raised to the model’s mouth, covering it, and the skin of the face, are done with modulated colours that give you the impression that you can see the muscles hiding just beneath the surface of the skin.

The eyes are also very striking. The left eye, in particular, is painted in such a way that you can see the red part near the corner of the opening in some detail, emphasising the sense of apprehension the painting creates. The painting serves to underscore the fragility that mental illness can cause in the person living with it, the feeling of imminent collapse and tension. 

The third painting I wanted to look at briefly is Julian Meagher’s ‘Herb and Flan’, a portrait of Australian novelist Richard Flanagan and his pet galah. Meagher says that Flanagan is one of his favourite novelists. “Herb, Richard’s writing partner, was pretty insistent that he be included in the painting,” the artist told curators. Meagher was born in 1978 and lives in Sydney. 

I like Meagher’s light washes and his use of white space, as though he were always using watercolours. This painting was done in oils. The artist exhibits at a gallery in Brisbane I know and so I have seen his work before. The sense of brightness and illumination that he gives his work is refreshing.

The next painting I chose to feature here is Mathew Lynn’s ‘Galdys Berejiklian’, a painting of the NSW state premier. The politician currently leads the conservative Liberal-National government and before she became party leader she had been the transport minister. She has invested heavily in rail infrastructure, something that the former Labor government had notably failed for decades to do. A previous Labor premier, Bob Carr, didn’t believe in population growth and so he saddled the residents of Australia’s largest city, which welcomes about 100,000 new residents every year, with a train system struggling to keep pace.

The portrait of Berejiklian shows a woman at home with power. She is seen in her office, standing with her the backs of her thighs leaning comfortably against the desk behind her, her hands serving to support her weight where they rest on the wood. There is a feeling of substance in this portrait and the blue colour of the sitter’s dress does more than just reflect her conservative allegiance. It radiates strength because of the way its tone contrasts with the colours used to paint the rest of the room. The predominant colour of the rest of the painting is a rich, nutty brown. 

A rare highlight in the restrained palette of the painting is the politician’s watch, emphasising how busy she must be in every day she is at work. She is facing directly at the viewer, the slight asymmetry of the placement of her eyes underscoring the realism that lies determinedly at the heart of this impressive work.

Next up is ‘Studio self-portrait’ by Vincent Namatjira, grandson of the famous Australian Aboriginal landscape painter, Albert Namatjira. I love the jaunty rhythms of this refreshing work. The way the people who constitute the subject of the painting behind the model – the artist himself – intrude into the pictive space reserved for the primary subject suggests that they have a vivid life in the artist’s imagination. Shown in that painting are Chuck Berry, the American rock-and-roll legend, and the artist’s grandfather. 

The way the faces of the people shown are drawn in a naïve fashion while still being immediately recognisable demonstrates the serious accomplishment of the artist. He has appropriated the naïve style – often used by Aboriginal artists – but given it a twist of his own in order to achieve the effects he has in mind when he sits down to paint.

Namatjira lives in the Indulkana community in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunitjatjara region of remote South Australia. I wrote about the works that the Australian War Memorial has commissioned from artists in that region on this blog on 17 December 2017.

Namatjira says in his comments that the painting shows him sitting resting at the end of a day spent painting. “I work in a busy art centre, and there’s always different music playing – country music, gospel, inma (cultural songs in language). It must have been rock ‘n’ roll on this day because I’ve put on a Kiss t-shirt and Chuck Berry is playing his guitar back there on the canvas.” He likens painting to a “battle” in his comments.

Next up is Christian Bonett’s ‘Queenstown, Tasmania’, a finalist for the Wynne Prize, which is awarded annually for landscape painting. I love the semi-abstract nature of this mainly figurative painting, the way the colours occupy the parts of the canvas and create a sense of space, despite the diminutive size of the painting, which is only about 50cm wide. 

Bonett spent eight days in Tasmania during the execution of this work, getting up early every morning and camping along a river. I presume that the black area along the horizon represents the ocean. The lemon yellow Bonett has used for the roadway is particularly satisfying, I think. I also like the way that he has modulated the other colours, although the painting is mainly made up of green and brown. Each colour has its own tonal signification and the juxtaposition of the different fields of colour, one next to the other, sets up interesting sensory vibrations.

The final painting I have chosen to feature is also from among the Wynne finalists. It is James Drinkwater’s ‘Hammer and breath’, which was painted during a sojourn at Bundanon, the property on the Shoalhaven River in southern NSW that was gifted to the nation by the painter Arthur Boyd in 1993. Artists regularly go to the property to paint. Drinkwater calls himself “a self-confessed Boyd tragic”. He sees a link between Boyd’s Pulpit Rock and Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire. “Painters require places to meditate on, places which inspire endless exploration with the ancient material of paint.”

I really enjoy the De Kooning-like echoes in Drinkwater’s painting, which is riotous with colour and with the articulation of different shapes and textures. The way that the dark colours and the strong colours contrast with the subtle and pale colours is particularly interesting, and mimics the way that poets who write in English can use words deriving from both Romance and Germanic languages to create texture and manage meaning in their works. The tonic white and red that are deployed from time to time on the two canvases this work is made up of set up curious rhythms that reverberate throughout it in a very satisfying way.

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