Jul 16 2016

Winner Announced for Archibald Portrait Prize 2016

by Michael Young

LOUISE HEARMAN winner of the 2016 Archibald Prize for her portrait of Australian entertainer, Barry Humphries. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.  

On July 15, Australian artist Louise Hearman took out the AUD 100,000 Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) annual Archibald Portrait Prize with a modest-sized painting of veteran Australian entertainer, Barry Humphries. Octogenarian Humphries has been painted for the Archibald six times previously, often in the guise of his stage alter ego, Dame Edna Everage.

The prize, which has run annually since 1921 is open to “any artist resident in Australasia” and is judged by the trustees of the AGNSW and herein lays the open competition’s weakness; accusations abound—mainly from those in the art business—that the criteria employed by the judges who this year had to weave their way through 830 entries to find the 51 finalist to hang, has little to do with excellence in painting and a lot to do with the exhibition’s broad popular appeal. Tens of thousands of visitors pour into the gallery every year just to visit the “Archies,” as the prize is affectionately known. With an entry fee of AUD 18, one can see why the AGNSW loves the competition.

The entry requirements state that the subjects should be “preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics.” Humphries is distinguished in entertainment and he is a dilettante painter so he qualifies. Quite how portraits of celebrity chefs get in is a mystery. Betina Fauvel-Ogden’s portrait of George Calombaris, Masterchef (2016) is one such and won the AUD 1,500 Packing Room Prize, chosen by the men who carry the paintings into the judging room, a prize which is deemed the kiss of death by artists because it never goes on to win the main Archibald prize although remains it in contention.

Half of the paintings this year are self-portraits of artists; Chinese-Australian Guan Wei introduces a political element into the Archibald with his self portrait Plastic Surgery (2016) commenting on how immigrants must learn to assimilate. He shows four phases of his noble Manchu face as it metamorphoses into a blond pale skinned Aussie. Imants Tillers’ Double Reality (Self-Portrait) 2014-2016 (2016) with its two small sketchy faces buried among his familiar multiple-panel trope is perhaps too elusive for many visitors. Tony Albert’s self portrait Tony Albert (after Brownie Downing) (2016) is too large at 300-cm-long to sustain the work’s slightness of execution. Nonetheless, it does have some appeal and the inclusion of characters from author Brownie Downing’s children’s books from the mid-20th century, which reduce its aboriginal characters to patronizing subjects, would appeal to the Archibald’s demographic who were children at the time the books were published. Albert can always be relied on to deliver a wry comment on his indigenous background in a remarkably unique way. What Downing saw as cutesy aboriginal characters Albert rightly sees now as oppressive and colonial cartoons.

The rest of the works on show amount to a litany of artists desperately trying to stand out among the chaff which every year proliferates. Styles are various from the mundane to the photorealist. But given the current state of the arts in Australia, an artist must subject themselves to the commercial imperative of the Archibald if they are to stand a chance of winning the pot of gold.

Outside the AGNSW on the day of the announcement was a demonstration by more than 100 students from the Sydney College of the Arts to protest against its forced merger with the University of New South Wales’ School of Art and Design, which will happen early next year. Local Labour politician Anthony Albanese spoke in their support saying that art was not something you could put a dollar sign on.

However inside the gallery, mammon was at large and there was no mistaking Hearman’s elation at her win. As she told ArtAsiaPacific, the AUD 100,000 moves her bank balance from the red to the black. Is she a deserving winner? Probably. Her painting is perfectly executed but like much else at the Archibald, it is devoid of imagination and lacks any psychological insight or conceptual underpinning.

One other deserving winner on the day was the deputy director of the AGNSW, Suhanya Raffel, who has held the position since May 2015. That morning the news of her upcoming appointment as director of M+ museum in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District was leaked. However, the AGNSW remained tight-lipped as to when she would be leaving. An announcement is scheduled for next Wednesday in Hong Kong. Her husband Michael Snelling who is currently director of Sydney’s embattled National Art School (NAS) is less discreet and is telling people he will leave NAS in eight weeks. The NAS is also under threat of merging with the two aforementioned art schools, a fact that would not have escaped the students assembled on the steps outside.  

LOUISE HEARMAN, Barry, oil on masonite, 69.5 × 100 cm. Copright the artist. Photo by AGNSW, Nick Kreisler. Courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. 

Archibald Portrait Prize is on show at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales until October 9, 2016.