Saturday, 12 June 2021

Sulman Prize finalists 2021

This year I decided to split my coverage of the annual spectacular prize hangs into separate posts, beginning with the Sulman. The Archibald and Wynne will be covered on subsequent days.

The Sulman hang was the first one to view when you entered this year. I didn’t get all of the images I wanted because of haste. This was partly due to the fact that the crowds were quite thick for the show. The queue to get tickets snaked around the ground floor, for a start, stretching all the way back – when I exited on the Friday I saw the show – past the entrance to the bookshop. I only waited about 10 minutes to get my ticket but waiting also happened once I got downstairs to the rooms the paintings were in. This was due to Covid restrictions on numbers. Inside, I stepped on people’s heels a couple of times as I manoeuvred myself into position trying to capture the image I needed for this post.

The first item I snapped was Sally Anderson’s ‘Nat’s Seatown cliff fall with Nik’s structure and McEvoy banksia’, a pretty amalgam that places unlike elements one beside the other to create a harmonious composition dominated by muted colours. The subdued red of the banksia is offset pleasantly by the blue used in the bottom right-hand side of the canvas. The work is acrylic, which gives it a sketchy, improvised feel that blends in with the nature of the contingent placement of disparate elements.

Nik’s structure is, presumably, the black element in the top left of the canvas, and it’s something that talks with the Seatown cliff fall drawing (bottom left). The way that Australian society developed from the edges of the continental landmass seems to emerge as an idea in this painting. I was reminded of the banksias you can see on the walk around Cronulla and the headlands to the south of that fabled beach. Cronulla also a site of suburban refuge – where people have traditionally gone to get away from their workday concerns, to have a meal and bathe in the sea.

Next in my list is John Bokor’s ‘Rose and lemons’ a still life with everyday objects that give the painting a demotic feel. This piece would make a good addition to any suburban living room – and you can buy the artist’s canvases from Edwina Collette in Brisbane. There’s something of Blackman in this work, the colours especially (love that olive green used for the background and the plate) but also the wonky perspective that gives the painting a preliminary feel. While the composition is paramount each item it embraces is visually striking and recognisable – the glass to the right-hand side being as resilient in the operation of the spectator’s eye as the book placed confrontingly at the front of the canvas.

Paul Higgs’ ‘Hurstville platform wall’ is a nice, complex and visually stimulating design that has elements of collage (I wonder how they’d last over time). Normally I’m not a big fan of seeing things stuck to a canvas – perhaps I’m a purist at heart (I don’t like many of Whiteley’s works on this account) – but here the effect is lively. Rosalie Gascoigne is possibly an influence.

Jude Rae’s ‘On the beach (Malua Bay, NYE 2019)’ is interesting because of its combination of formalism and temporal and geographical specificity. The artist has placed the viewer at a particular place at a particular point in time but the style has a dream-like and timeless feel. The use of orange throughout the design makes the painting look like a TV ad, the colours bleached out for effect in order to transport the viewer to a place and time outside the parameters of the everyday. But the activity depicted is festive. There are lots of people around, for a start. It’s not as if you’re in a nightmare – though that horse is a bit disturbing, being so much larger than the people gathered around it.

You can buy Georgia Spain’s work at The Egg and Dart and in fact she had an exhibition there this year. Her ‘Getting down or falling up’ won the Sulman Prize this year. The work toys with the figurative and the abstract, asking you to decide which is dominant. You can see figures in the canvas but they bleed and sway like trees in a heavy breeze.

I tried to take a photo of Maria Purcell’s ‘That time of day’ but it didn’t turn out as desired, so the next work I’ll focus on (this time successfully!) is Paul Selwood’s ‘Construction zone’, which I chose because I’m a big fan of brutalism.

Suzanne Archer’s 'Winterburn’ is a lovely, intricate painting that looks back to the eighties. I really enjoyed seeing this work, which contains diagrammatic representations of things in the world that are subsumed in a fantasy-scape where anything might be possible. I also like the lack of specificity, which allows the viewer to have a range of different thoughts while looking at the canvas. The red and the purple seems to move and shimmer on it, and the little white figure at right floats carelessly amid this pleasant world’s glowing colours.

Another abstract work, but one which looks back to the seventies, is John Fitzgibbon’s ‘Time, mystery, and memory’, its earth tones reminding me of the postwar era with its ambitions and dreams. Many of the ideas that artists of this era played with – a certain monumentalism, a muted triumphalism – were further questioned in the following decade. The seventies was the last time that Modernism was able to dominate unquestioned, and by the eighties Postmodernism had started to make artworks more self reflexive and overtly aware of the process of creation. Fitzgibbon’s work sitting next to Archer’s was a nice touch on the part of the trustees.

A delicate and typical naïve artwork is Sally M Nangala Mulda’s ‘Town camp everyday’, which uses the vernacular of Aboriginal communities in the outback to depict life far from the inner city enclaves where the art gallery is situated.

Chris O’Doherty (aka Reg Mombassa) got a painting hung, the one below, which is titled ‘Gum trunk with koala’. Typical for this artist it is humorous, though with a sharp edge -see those sticks of dynamite strapped to the creature’s chest?

Glenn Morgan’s ‘The best loser’ tells a story of a boxing match. Also naïve, this one has a strong narrative arc taking the viewer into a room full of spectators with, at the centre, two pugilists intent on smashing the other’s face in. I enjoyed this work and thought to myself how amazing it is to see such a broad range of styles in one show. 

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