I tend to take a ‘death and taxes’ view of the Archibald Prize, currently on at Sydney’s AGNSW. Complaining about it seems futile, it’s as inevitable as the tides. As with those other two unfortunate afflictions far better to simply offer advice and succour in an attempt to ameliorate the pain it causes.This time it feels pretty grim, the trends toward giganticism, historical pastiche (although there is ONE good pun to be enjoyed) and splashy sanitized street art are all present an incorrect. Perhaps the fact that they’re so predictable only makes them more depressing, if nothing else the whole exercise makes you question the aesthetic judgement of our present generation of commissioning Medici.
It’s curious to see a portrait show in the age of digital reproduction. The rise of photography did not see the demise of painting but, instead, a move away from the illusionistic realism as such a key criteria of quality. The Impressionists were at work as the first plates of silver oxide were being exposed and they are the first group of artists who we recognise from photographic portraits rather than paintings, yet we accept their work as showing a perceived reality. Thus in the age of chemical and digital reproduction our criteria has changed, we ask for images to reveal rather than show. Photographs must capture a moment, and by moment we mean a frozen frame of time that represents so much more, the same must go for painted portraits where we hope that medium and representation offer something that could never otherwise be produced. That's the criterion used here.
We ought to start on a positive, with the winner, Sam Leach’s portrait of 'Tim Minchin'. Leach paints in the intimate cabinet style of the old Dutch Masters but it is his handling of light, both as subject and in the mirror like surfaces of his paintings that makes him extraordinary rather than the, still significant, precision of his painting. Photo-realism damns Leach with faint praise. That is not to denigrate his desegno and brushwork, his compositions are stunning, he makes the shining void a character in his work and he demonstrates how six hundred years of western art tradition is still relevant. Leach shows us that his miniaturist’s skill offers revelation rather than reproduction. His subjects often look uneasy, perhaps Leach’s method reminds them of the old Dutch vanitas, and brings intimations of mortality and posterity. He seems to capture living people resistant at being caught in his varnished surfaces and in doing so creates something more soulful than clever.
The piece that has stayed with me most persistently is James Money’s portrait of 'The Lord Mayor of Melbourne'. It’s not huge, it’s not flashy but it is beautiful and creates very human spectacle. The slight flattening and the geometric rigidity of the collar and tie give a hint of John Brack, but they also show give a basis for contrast, their formality, both sartorially and aesthetically, opens us the possibility of the big head atop them to appear ever so subtly alive. Money’s technique, where he has scraped away at the surface so it almost appears to be tattooed into the red earth ground, is impeccably matched to the subject. Like Melbourne’s architecture there is a sombre nineteenth century alderman quality to the surface, but you also become aware how smart and stylized it is (again you might remind yourself of John Brack). In every way Money has captured the balance between office holder and human being perfectly.
I would contrast this to some of the other ‘great and good’ portraits here. They range from the merely prosaic like Yang Li’s ‘Bishop Elliot’ or Peter Smeeth’s ‘Peter Fitzsimons’ to, a popular Archibald genre, the comic symbolic. The best representation of the latter here is Alexander McKenzie’s ‘Andrew Upton’ which is as cartoonish and heavy handed as Upton’s translations are cloth eared. If one painting symbolizes that Archibald tendency to wear references heavily but smugly it’s Giles Alexander’s ‘The Alternative Ambassadors (Professors Ross Garnaut and Martin Gree)'. I don’t mind a spot of historical appropriation but this is so witless that it steps into the realms of those pastiche Wild West photos you can dress up for. In picking Holbein’s masterpiece Alexander has taken on a painting full of mystery and replaced it with a series of glib references. It’s a classic ‘secret stupid’ painting, not seeming to understand that there is a difference between using a symbolic system to denote an object or a quality and using a small image of that object itself. I find it difficult to describe just how irritating I found this smug middlebrow mess.
There is always a thread of artists painting one another in the show and at least there are two interesting examples here. Rodney Pople, always refreshingly off kilter, is fairly traditional but darkly seductive in his triptych of Stelarc, the body modifier-cum artist. Pople’s blurring of photography and painting echoes Stelarc’s blurring of the body as organism and art medium and he gives the artist a kind of film noir intensity. I like the dramatic vitality of Pople’s work and here he raises the question of the difference between man and performance and personae through the different panels. That the question is never resolved actually makes it more interesting than Stelarc’s work. Another case of a portraitist outdoing his subject is Nigel Milsom’s portrait of Adam Cullen. The full length work picks out a figure in tones of black and gives him hints of Picasso, German Expressionism and even a hint of mystery play. Milsom creates a theatrical image that might have come from the salon of an early Twentieth Century actor, it captures the idea of artist as celebrity and plays at a knowingly symbolic level. It’s much more interesting than Cullen’s own entry, a typically drippy cartoon.
There are some more bravura stylistic experiments here that appear to sneak in by way of apology from the judges. The high shine abstraction of 'I wake up with TODAY!' by Shane Bowden and Dean Reilly, looks calculated to shock, whilst it is striking, a massive mirror varnished black panel is broken by multi-coloured lines that hint at human chins. It's hard to say what, if anything, it's trying to do with the idea of the portrait, it isn't that daring just opaque and seems to be a triumph of style over subject. While that's confusing Marc De Jong's 'Janice Petersen' just looks confused. There's a convergence of ideas here that never quite works out, the paintings surface is either pointillist or pixellated, depending on your bent, makes one remember television when of an older, lower resolution, past. The subject, a newsreader at work, is painted as if the lights and cameras were between us and her. The painting has a hugely self conscious composition that's dominated by a big black clump of TV camera, one imagines that it is supposed to say something about being behind the scenes, or surface and reality. All of these odd alienating effects add up to far less than the sum of their parts.
There are sometimes small treasures to be found in these shows, tucked away in a corner one of these is Khue Nguyen's 'Unleashed'. So modest in size and palette this watercolour self-portrait undoes much of the clumsiness elsewhere. An obvious precursor is Arcimboldo whose puzzle portraits of men created from fruits, fish and flesh were commissioned for renaissance monarchs. Nguyen bleeds a symbolic octopus into his face, and almost camouflages himself. That puzzle set within a side-on portrait also reminds us of Titian's 'Allegory of Prudence' but here none of these references are highlighted or screamed. The overall of feel of the piece is that of a faded document, as though Nguyen were unearthing his own history and using the form of the portrait to understand who he is.
The fact of the Archibald being a portrait prize concerned with prominent Australians (as opposed to all those other Australians who commission painters to do portraits of them) is problematic where it ought to be enlightening. At present the galleries are filled with ‘ooh’s and ‘aaah’s as people recognise subjects and consider the veracity of the representation. Imagine though (and this would take imagination, first of all, amongst the judging panel) an annual review of the art of the portrait, of its conventions, discontents and possibilities. That would be worth queuing up for.