I stood waiting in the foyer of the Art Gallery of New South Wales – this was my temple. Art galleries around the world are my place of contemplation, providing idols and shrines to inspire thought, and seemingly infinite space and time. It had been 5 months since my last confession: the Tatsuo Miyajima exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
With its diverse subjects, political commentary, and a genre-twist, the 2017 finalists for the Archibald Prize were of high calibre. Every year, Sydneysiders enjoy browsing the portraits of well-known personalities, obscure-but-accomplished citizens, and actor/director John Bell (only two works featuring him this year!). Almost-three-dimensional oil-paintings are popular as ever (see pictured below), perhaps because of the painting of John Bell that won back in 2001. But there’s everything from photo-realistic paintings to cubist art, like this year’s winner: “Agatha Gothe-Snape” by Mitch Cairns.
There was some interesting uses of mixed media: “JC” (pictured above) contains a dead moth and a unicorn hologram; there’s a school-boys’ collaborative work made of blocks of painted wood; a Peter Powditch portrait with folded cardboard and wood; and a fabulous Wynne entry by Juz Kitzon (below, left) that is made of porcelain, wool, resin, pelt, wax, horns, teeth, quills and more.
I’ve realised that portraits of white men in suits rarely interest me anymore unless, like Phil Meatchem’s painting of Francis Greenslade, they reveal something unexpected. I realise that the suit is an important symbol in its own right, but it hardly jumps out at you. On the other hand, Dee Smart’s “The mayor of Bondi” (above, right) was strikingly beautiful with pops of colour offsetting the monochrome realist body of John Macarthur. Then again, I was just captivated by his shocking white hair and dark wrinkly skin that reminded me of my grandfather who had passed away a week earlier.
The highlight for me was to see that an artwork by Indigenous artist Tjungkara Ken had been submitted as a self-portrait:
‘My painting is a self-portrait through Kungkarangkalpa tjukurpa, the Seven Sisters dreaming – a self-portrait of my country. For Anangu, they are one and the same.’ – Tjungkara Ken
After her collaborative work with her sisters won the 2016 Wynne prize (now hanging in the foyer of AGNSW), I had started to wonder if these so-called landscapes should in-fact be portraits given that they are an expression of identity, so I was thrilled to see this entered as part of the Archibald, but then there was still a full room of Indigenous dot-painting landscapes in the Wynne Prize. I’m not if it was accidental or clever placement, but while in that very room, I spotted through the doorway the Sophia Hewson entry that challenges viewers to confront their white guilt. It wasn’t the only piece of political art in this exhibition, but I’m curious to see how the Australian art community responds. Until next year…