About 50 years ago, an unknown artist entered a portrait of the artist Russell Drysdale for the Archibald Prize. They had painted the artist as a whimsical head emerging from the landscape. The gallery’s trustees, who knew Drysdale well, loved it – but it was never hung. In their collective opinion, the Archibald Prize was a serious art competition. The subject should never be mocked, even with affection.
How times have changed. The current generation of curators still take the prize seriously, but not just as an exhibition. The award has become an annual snapshot of Australia. It shows a selection of the personalities appreciated by both the artists who paint them and the curators who select the lucky few to see (it’s worth noting that while 57 works have been hung, 949 have been submitted).
This year’s exhibition shows a colorful representation of a multitude of styles and subjects. The new orthodoxy is that there is no orthodoxy. A similar inclusive sensibility can be seen in the Wynne Prize for landscape painting or figurative sculpture, and the Sulman Prize for exhibitions on the best subject, genre painting or murals, although these works are often overlooked at the annual arts festival.
Read more: ‘I think Archie would be happy’: 100 years of our most famous portrait award and my nearly 50 years of watching it evolve
Perhaps the work that best summarizes Archibald’s 2023 work is that of Kaylene Whiskey Cooking my famous Indulkana soup, a joyous celebration of raw ingredients, pop culture and Aboriginal heritage. It rightly hangs in a prominent place, opposite the podium where the final judgment will be pronounced.
Whiskey also exhibits Come check out Kayleen in the Sulman Prize, a reworked Northern Territory tourism poster from the days when TAA flew ‘the friendly way’. Those who have come to see her include good friends Wonder Woman and Dolly Parton.
Jason Phu has led the trifecta this year, with entries in all three competitions. His Archibald Portrait of William Yang, cameras are the best, cameras are the worstimplies Yang’s trademark understated inscrutability.
In all three of Phu’s paintings thin paint runs over the surface, making it seem as if we are seeing the images through wet glass.
This is very disturbing in his Wynne entry, EVERYTHING STINKS UNDER A STINKING HOT SUN, EVERYTHING GROWS UNDER A SEXY SEXY SUMMER SUN (to a pile of dead rats on a pretty rock bed)based on memories of an incident when he was a “dish pig” at a tourist restaurant in The Rocks.
I suspect the Trustees will have a hard time judging this year’s Wynne as there are many very strong entries, including sculptures.
Billy Bains Blake Excellence is a light-hearted collection of five Aboriginal sportsmen, both of whom are stars in their fields, all of whom have helped to change some of the negative stereotypes that some would impose on Aboriginal Australians.
Probably the finest of the sculptural entries is Pippin Drysdale’s Wolfe Creek Crater Installation, consisting of 17 separate porcelain pieces. The most memorable, however, is that of James Powditch The Wynne Club Championshipa counterfeit honor plate for the previous winners of the grand old prize.
Life is short, art is long
But the Archibald remains the main game.
When reviewing this year’s exhibition, Sydney’s Royal Easter Show keeps coming to mind. It is extremely popular with the general public for its sideshows and baby animals, beautiful displays of farm produce, fairy tales and CWA scones. But at its core there is the very serious purpose of competition – from fine wool sheep and beef cattle to dogs and poultry. The day trippers enjoy the spectacle, but the competitors mean business. And so it is with the Archibald.
When the Packing Room Judges handed the Packing Room Prize amuse bouche to Andrea Huelin, they set the bar high for the Main Event Judges.
In the past, the gallery’s packing crew could justifiably be described as ‘good old boys’: the early winners were more often than not paintings that would otherwise have ended up in the scrap pile.
The exhibition is enlivened by the whimsical but tough of Ryan Presley Blood Money – Bill of Infinity Dollars – Aunty Regina Pilawuk WilsonEmily Crockford’s sheer energy Jeff’s pink daisy eyelashes collide and Abdul Abdullah is playful Self-portrait after MD 2.
But the painting that haunts me that I can’t forget is by Danie Mellor A portrait of intimacy. The subject is Gene Sherman, whose husband Brian died less than a year ago.
She sits in profile, her face filled with sadness, staring ahead, focused on the infinity, eyes protected by her tinted glasses, hands on the arm of the chair. Sherman’s pose mirrors a see-through background image of Alesso Baldovinetti’s Portrait of a lady in yellow.
Life is short, art is long and will outlive us all.
Read more: Judging the Archibald: the rules of the game