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The Archibald in the Yarra

The Archibald in the Yarra

Binoy Kampmark
August 3, 2011

As one moves into Yarra country in Victoria, Australia, the sight of a tamed environment is everywhere. As the wineries start making an appearance as dots of civilized behaviour to water the thirsty, the mood is an appropriately cultured one. TarraWarra Gallery near Healesville was a superb venue for the Archibald finalists this year. The judges often have a habit of getting it wrong but ascertaining what the suitable criteria to apply is a challenge to begin with.

Australia has been unusual in some ways for being littered with numerous art prizes. It might not, at stages of its history, have boasted an art market of any consequence, but you could be assured that a prize would be there to have a stab at. When the Archibald Prize was added to the expanding list in 1921, it enabled artists to exhibit in a manner beyond those limiting worlds of private or public commission. But a dull realism was the order of the day – at least initially. W.B. McInnes established a stranglehold over the judges, winning it with monotonous regularity till 1926.

The art prize stipulation that it also feature a ‘distinguished’ man or woman made the sitter a subject of dominant interest. Sitter, painter and painting would form the most pedestrian of relationships. This, sadly, would be the triumph of the dull.

Only with William Dobell’s haunting portrait of artist Joshua Smith in 1943 did the establishment receive a kick in the shins of aesthetic sensibilities, so much so that it sparked legal action against Dobell and the trustees for an impertinent attack on ‘form’. The debate continues: what constitutes a portrait? Should the portrait itself become a subject of life, rather than a stale reproduction of ‘the real’? Having little patience with these forms was what propelled Brett Whiteley to make a full frontal assault with his Art, Life and Other Thing (1978).

Occasionally, entries are condemned as weak and undeserving of any decent consideration. In December 2004, Robert Nelson would write in The Age that it did not ‘matter that the Archibald Prize is overhung, dingy and cramped. Too few of the paintings warrant anything or better, for they hardly reward contemplation; and a dignified stretch of all would be a good waste of resources’.

The references of the philistine can also prove irresistible. Even critic Andrew Frost, who does an occasional stint with the ABC, would note the nature of the Archibald as something of a ‘horse race’, an effect of competition that has a nasty habit of reducing art to a gambling form. ‘Picking a winner is harder than the Melbourne Cup’ (ABC, Apr 29).

Themes start to emerge from this year’s contenders, which are also of variable quality. Evidently, the judges had a liking for hybrid oriental themes – artists who managed to parse a Chinese background together with the stretched influences of the antipodes. Zhong Chen’s minimalist Self-portrait on a horse was one such example; Kate Benyon’s Painting shirt (self-portrait), was another.

The Archibald winner this year was a deserving Ben Quilty for his painting of the formidable Margaret Olley, whose presence in Australian art is has been unquestionable. In a sense, the portrait was a fine capture, refusing to flatter yet providing a strong dignity to the sitter. There is aggression, determination, a firmness in the pasting of the strokes from the icing knife, a spatula that does what it needs to do. ‘Keep your cutlery handy,’ suggested one of spectators. And sure enough, it was the sort of thing that Quilty had to do without revision. Sadly, this feature of it is not captured in the reproductions.

There were also some public murmurings that the better painting was that of the Nobel Laureate John Coetzee by Adam Chang, showing a writer of deep, wounded contemplations against a reddish ground. Others voiced conventional suspicions that the Sydney establishment were going to make sure that Melbourne artists would be kept out in the cold. But by the standards of previous years, the kafuffle was minimal, and the guests satisfied.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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