Thursday, 11 July 2019

The 2019 Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes: personal favourites

In May last year I did a quit whip around the Art Gallery of New South Wales and on the blog put up a series of reflections about what I had found interesting in the shows held that year.

This year I am doing the same thing. As before, my visit was very quick but I saw some very good works in the three exhibitions on display downstairs at the gallery. I liked all the winners and will put up the Sulman Prize winner here. The Wynne Prize winner, as in the case last year, was an Aboriginal artwork. The Archibald winner I thought also very good but it has gotten a lot of coverage and it will be easy for anyone who wants to to find a photo of it online.

In what follows most of the selected paintings are figurative works and the other thing that links them is a certain looseness or gestural quality in the application of the paint. Two of the works are naïve and one is a curious mix of abstraction in the tradition of John Olsen and the literalness of Indigenous painting.

The show that was located nearest to the entrance this year was for the Sulman Prize finalists, so I’ll start with those that I found interesting in it. The first painting in my catalogue is by Nick Santoro and it is titled ‘Hewitts Avenue montage’.

This painting is right near the entrance so you see it as soon as the usher has scanned your ticket. The colours are very interesting, particularly the sky, and the naïve style is reminiscent of a lot of artwork by Aboriginal painters that I have seen in recent years in different exhibitions, including some at this gallery. Like abstract Aboriginal art, there is a literalness in this work that is very appealing as it challenges convention in an oblique fashion. There is no doubt what each object in the work represents and so meaning is created by the associations that the different elements of the painting produce as they combine together to form a whole. I also like the narrative tendency of this kind of art.

The winner of the Sulman Prize this year is McLean Edwards’ ‘The first girl that knocked on his door’, a portrait of a young man in a yellow check jacket. It’s not clear what the man has on his shoulders or even what he is holding in his hand, although the text that accompanies the painting says that the latter object is an “apple/phone”, which doesn’t really make things much clearer. I liked the directness of the subject’s gaze, which is straight at the viewer as though challenging him or her to make a judgement of the very bold jacket he is wearing. This is a nice meditation on youth.

The next painting that I want to look at is Tom Carment’s Sulman Prize entry ‘Singer typewriter in Don’s shed, Perth’. This painting has echoes of de Kooning, especially in the types of colours used and in the loose, gestural application of paint. The text that accompanies the painting says that Carment has painted a number of different typewriters in recent years. I like the mix of abstract and figurative elements in this lovely painting.

Ken Done’s ‘Dive 3’ is a lovely work that reminded me of Arthur Boyd’s late works when I saw it. Done is best known for his T-shirts and scenes of Sydney Harbour, but this time he has focused his attention underwater. Wonderful use of colour and so delightful it’s almost edible!

Now to the Wynne Prize. The first painting I want to look at is one that is overtly controversial. It is Abdul Abdullah’s ‘A terrible burden’. 

This painting combines figurative elements – in the background – with conceptual elements – in the text that is written boldly over the top of the image. Commenting on the dispossession of the continent by white people at the expense of the Aborigines, the work will not appeal to many people because of its calculated message. I didn’t like the way the text that accompanies the work has been picked up by other commentators who have written about this work. It seems to me that an artwork has to survive on its own, unassisted, or not at all. But this is a bit purist, I am aware.

The next painting I want to look at is Jun Chen’s ‘Magnolia trees’. This artist is represented in Sydney by a gallery in Chippendale and I didn’t go along to see his work last year when there was a show on there. Chen was born in China in 1960 and migrated to Australia in 1990. In an appealing and oblique way this lovely painting references ideas current in the last century in China; a way that doesn’t mask the figurative brilliance of the work.

We now come to Marc Etherington’s ‘The view from my mum and dad’s place’, a fetching naïve work with strong figurative elements and a terrific colour scheme that suggests dusk, an evocative time of day.

Robert Malherbe’s (below) ‘Lithgow, path to water’ is very striking with almost exaggerated figurative elements and vigorous brushwork.

Below is Yantji Young’s ‘Tjala tjukurpa (honey ant story)’ combines John Olsen’s distinctive style with the Aboriginal style that Olsen himself drew on. This is a fine work and was very memorable.

I didn’t fix my attention on too many works in the Archibald but the ones that grabbed me were, again, mainly figurative in their content. The first one I want to look at is Ciara Adolphs’ ‘Rosemary Laing and Geoff Kleem (in their garden)’, which relies on a very subdued palette and is done in oils even though the paint appears to be very thin. White space has been used inventively to create texture and contrast and the painting looks something like a black-and-white photograph.

A similarly mild palette was used by Keith Burt to paint ‘Benjamin Law: happy sad’, a portrait of the popular journalist and TV personality.

Also figurative but with some more expressive elements is Paul Ryan’s ‘Self-portrait in the studio with the Beastie Boys, painting James Drinkwater for the Archibald Prize (Los amigos)’. This self-conscious work has considerable panache and features another Australian artist; Drinkwater is the subject of a post I did on the blog in November. Drinkwater is represented by the same gallery that represents Jun Chen.

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