All that a hopeful artist has to do to win Australia’s most prestigious prize for portrait painting is pay the $50 entry fee and deliver their painting to the loading dock at the rear of the Art Gallery of NSW at a certain date. Each year thousands of paintings are arrive and if a painting makes the final exhibition it is doing well.
The portrait must be of a notable in the fields of arts, science or politics (although judging from the entries this is very flexible). It has to be painted from life, meaning that the artist must have actually met the notable person; the subject has to sign the entry form to confirm this. Mostly it is artists painting other artists, or themselves, in a daisy-chain of insider promotion.
It was a relief to see that there were no portraits of politicians amongst this year’s finalists. No of the finalist artists wanted to be associated with any Australian politician. Although ugly, morally bankrupt thugs have been the subject of Archibald finalists in the past, such as Adam Cullen’s portrait of Chopper Reed, there were no portraits of popular criminals this year.
One positive aspect of both of these trends is that there were a lot more small portraits suitable for domestic display.
As a focus of this blog is the intersection of street and gallery so I should report on the two street artists in the exhibition: ELK and Kirpy. Both portraits are very large, more than one square metre, multi-layered stencils spray-painted in aerosol paint and use acrylic paint to fill in the larger areas and give weight and texture. And both compositions have strong horizontal elements, in a rather rigid and static structure. Kirpy’s painted Dylan Alcott Paralympic gold medallist and founder of the musical festival Ability Fest. And ELK (aka Luke Cornish) did portrait of businesswoman and media commentator Sue Cato, along with her dogs, Callie and Comet. In 2012 ELK was the first street artist in the Archibald Prize finals and the following year first street finalist in Sulman Prize.
For the exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW is not just the Archibald but also the Wynne and Sulman prize.These prizes receive far less attention in the media than the celebrity focus of the Archibald.
The Wynne Prize for landscape painting or figurative sculpture is, not surprisingly, dominated by Indigenous artists this year. Figurative sculpture has become far less significant in Australia’s art world and there were only two pieces amongst the finalists.
The changing significance of types of art reminded me that the Sulman Prize is for subject, genre or mural painting. And given the increased significance of mural painting I don’t know why more street artists and graffiti writers don’t enter that prize. After all Guido van Helten’s Brim silos mural project was the winner for the mural prize in 2016.
I haven’t seen the actual Archibald prize exhibition for many years but as I was in Sydney I can report on it.
Walking around the gallery district of Fitzroy and Collingwood I am hoping to see the extraordinary, the outstanding or at least something worth writing a blog entry about. Walking between the galleries I am also on the look out for interesting features of urban design, architecture or street art.
Some of the galleries, 69 Smith St. and Mossenson were closed. Mossenson’s have permanently closed their Melbourne branch and now only operate out of Perth; I had heard that commercial galleries were having difficulties in their finically difficult times. The “artist-run” 69 Smith is only temporarily closed for renovations but ugly rumours have been circulating; many years ago I was on the organising committee and although I am not a member I still communicate with current members.
Port Jackson Press has moved to a new location, further along and on the other side of Smith Street, in March this year. It is an attractive old shop with brass fittings around its windows. I had seen many of the artists on display before including two stencils by Kirpy on corrugated cardboard. Kirpy is one of the best stencil artists in Melbourne (number 3 on my top 10 Melbourne stencil artists).
Sometimes I can see enough from the street to know that I’m just not interested in going inside the gallery. Sometimes I can’t see anything from the street and I have to venture inside. That was the reason I had to go inside Australian Galleries.
“I’ll turn the lights on for you” the woman at the desk said. It appears that even Australian Galleries is economising or green or both.
With the lights on the paintings by Stewart MacFarlane did not look much better. The life study at the end of the exhibition summed it up. MacFarlane’s exploits nudes and nostalgic early 60s Americana in bold brushstrokes. He has found something creepy in the currently fashionable retro-style of this era but why would anyone want these hanging paintings on their wall?
However, I could understand why someone would hang the small, delicate surreal paintings of South Australian artist, Nerissa Lea on their wall. There is a surreal poetry to her paintings and sculptures along with a bit of an obsession with animal headed people and Emily Dickinson. In the small side gallery at Australian Galleries, there was “The Waiting Grounds” by Nerissa Lea, named after the largest painting in the exhibition where a boy walking on stilts across a forest floor covered in red leaves.
Gertrude Contemporary was very contemporary art; 200 Gertrude Street, a site-specific installation by Stephen Bram is a post-minimalist reconstruction of the gallery space. Walking between the angled concertina walls felt like walking between a Richard Serra sculpture. Then there was contrast between back stage construction side and the gallery white walls. It is all about the space, the art space, a common theme in contemporary art.
And so on for some more galleries, of course the extraordinary is exceptionally rare and what is commonly encountered is ordinary, sometimes clever or beautiful but still ordinary. However this is no reason not to continue to search for it.
South Melbourne Street Fair – Graffiti Exhibition at Emerald House
The beautifully painted mini parked out the front was an excellent announcement of the exhibition on 3 floors of the underground carpark of Emerald House in South Melbourne. I mean almost every wall and pillar in the whole carpark – the ventilation ducts were painted to look like different types of trains. It is huge, “covering more than 800 square meters of space” and claiming to be “Australia’s largest private exhibition of graffiti art”. This is what the Medici’s carpark would have looked like in the Renaissance, if they had a carpark and cars.
This impressive exhibition has work from 90 local and international artists. It features many of Melbourne’s well-known aerosol artists, along with some paste-ups from Urban Cake Lady. The only obvious stencils were by Kirpy, Vexta and Stabs, although a lot, like Duel, were using stencils for background patterns. There was also some brushwork from a few artists.
With so many impressive pieces on show it would take me forever to finish this post if I commented on all of them. There was Makatron’s wall of bees – “for all the bee boys and girls”. And Phibs’s style worked so well on the pillars.
The main problem with this exhibition was how they handled the public – everyone wants to re-invent the wheel. The idea of having artists leading tour groups around might sound good but it meant hanging around the entrance for an artist who had no experience in leading a tour group hoping to wing it with impromptu comments and couldn’t answer my first question about who did a piece. Who is the artist who did this wall and another magnificent piece, also with Monster, at Sparta Place in Brunswick? Answer: Werner “Nash” Zwakhalen.
Nash, Project Melbourne Underground
Nash, Sparta Place, Brunswick
On my way back home I saw the AWOL crew working on the wall at Brunswick Station. At the time they had a few outlines up and were carefully moving a long strip of masking tape from one part of the wall. The AWOL crew have taken their collaborative approach painting a wall to a whole new level. Isn’t this the dream of all painters to completely fill you field of vision?
AWOL crew, Project Melbourne Underground
Slicer & Adnate (AWOL crew), Brunswick
You can see more and better photos of Project Melbourne Underground at Land of Sunshine – part one and part two. Yes, I know, you just want to look at the pictures.