Archibald Backwash: Live By The Media

News Mar 30, 2004 No Comments

How dare reality intrude on our fantasy world?!! We knew full well that trying to predict the winner of the Archibald Prize for Portraiture is virtually impossible, especially considering the fickle and perverse tastes and decisions of the Art Gallery of NSW Board of Trustees. So we may have been way off with our pie in the sky prediction of a McLean Edwards win, but we did narrow the field from 40 to 3 possible winners and get Craig Ruddy in our sights! So fair’s fair.

But it’s a nonetheless sobering moment when AGNSW über publicist Jan Batten leaves a note on The Art Life comments page to say “It’s no good trying to predict an Archibald!!! There’s no ‘form guide’ this year from either the SMH or The Australian” and “Evert Ploeg‘s portrait of Jana Wendt is definitely a finalist (with 39 others) in this year’s Archibald.”

Too true Jan and we respect your authority. We don’t know what went wrong with the Sydney Morning Herald this year and the missing Archibald “form guide” left a gaping hole in our lives. Perhaps it’ll make a return next year. We had to content ourselves with the plethora of “last minute entries” stories leading up to the prize (an annual newspaper tradition that goes back to the 1950s, probably further) and the coverage of the prize on the TV that always makes us glad that these kinds of events are the exception rather than the norm – imagine if Peter Harvey was covering art all the time instead of just the annual Archibald? Sweet Jesus?!!

Many years of thankless effort as the political correspondent for your newspaper/TV network will earn you a dotage of arts reportage. Who cares if you don’t know anything at all about art and just recycle the same cynical, world weary anti-art attitude? No one is taking you seriously so you can say anything you like!

Harvey was covering the award as he does every year and managed to make fun of both the Sulman and Wynne prize winners and be culturally offensive to boot! You have to admire his sheer nerve. Harvey was seen looking aghast at Allan Mitleman’s Sulman-winning painting (white flecks on a black background) and then at Makinti Napanangka’s Wynne canvas (white patterned dots on a black background) before tiresomely pointing out that both paintings were titled Untitled. “Yes,” he said, “You fill in the dots…” Harvey was then seen sitting on a chair next to Tony Oursler’s video installation Mo 2003 with a stupid, mock-disgusted look on his face. Modern art horror!

We think he meant to say “You connect the dots” but we were so enraged by his default attitude of “modern art is bullshit” we nearly attacked the television. It’s all very well to say you don’t get it – and to be fair Mitleman’s painting looks like a giant chocolate brownie – but playing to your viewer’s worst prejudices is just moronic. It would be about as smart as working from the position in political reporting that all politicians are corrupt, vainglorious bastards out for nothing more than self promotion (actually, now that we come to think of it…). And one last point about Harvey’s story – the Oursler video was not actually part of the Sulman exhibition, it was just next door in the contemporary collection. They just couldn’t resist the cheap shot.

Over on the ABC, Geoff Simms did the coverage. You may remember the posh-toned Simms from his many years of duty as the ABC’s foreign correspondent in the UK during the 1980s and his many positive (not to say downright arse licking) stories on Margaret Thatcher and Her Majesty The Queen.

Naturally, on his return to Australia, Simms got the lucky job of doing the soft touch human interest stories like lost dogs and the Archibald. Although we were fully prepared to be outraged, Simms story was a model of journalistic integrity and was respectful, intelligent and informative. Unlike Harvey, for instance, Simms told you things like how the Trustees narrowed the finalist to Ruddy, Robert Hannaford and Jenny Sages. You know, information.

In the newspapers The Australian treated the award as a news story and was covered by Rosalie Higson:

It’s black, it’s loud and it’s proud.

Craig Ruddy’s Two Worlds, a portrait of actor David Gulpilil, is the winner of this year’s $35,000 Archibald Prize.

Among the scrum of media and enthusiastic art fans at the Art Gallery of NSW, the 35-year-old Ruddy stood beaming yesterday as the crowd acknowledged his win from a record 732 entries.

Gulpilil, who returned to his home in the Northern Territory after performing his acclaimed one-man show Gulpilil for the Adelaide Festival earlier this month, is internationally recognised for his movie roles, from Walkabout in 1971, when he was just 16, to his most recent role as The Tracker in 2002.

Ruddy said he had long admired his subject: “He has such a strong, powerful image, and I was fascinated and intrigued by his ability to move between two different lifestyles — from living traditionally with his people, to Hollywood, the film world.”

You see – more information, details, numbers, awards… Further on Higson gave some background to the work itself.

“The resulting work is more than 2m square, with the bold graphite and charcoal image worked over a textured 1880-designed William Morris wallpaper, to point up social and racial tensions between the two worlds Gulpilil inhabits.

Gulpilil has invited Ruddy to Arnhem Land to draw him in his traditional milieu, which he discussed at length with the actor. “He’s a very different person when he’s on the land to when he’s on stage or working in the film industry, and I’m very keen to get out there,” Ruddy said.

Critics inevitably pounce on the Archibald winner, but this was a crowd favourite.

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Naturally, the Sydney Morning Herald covered it as lifestyle, which is pretty much how they cover everything these days, so they called in Sharon Verghis, a specialist when it comes to visual art and a journalist who can reduce anything to marshmallow-like goo:

”Craig Ruddy’s hands told an eloquent story of their own as he was announced as the winner of the 2004 Archibald Prize yesterday.

“White-knuckled and tense, they wrestled with each other as he got up to make his speech. Clasped together tightly afterwards, they formed a fragile chest-level barrier against the crush.

“Then, as the Sydney artist and erstwhile bodysurfer got used to the idea of the win – and the accompanying $35,000 cheque -they slowly relaxed, unknotting themselves finger by finger. The rest of his body then took over.

“He posed uncomfortably in front of his winning portrait of actor David Gulpilil, blinking nervously, shuffling his old, neon-orange sneakers and occasionally grabbing at his stomach like a man with creeping indigestion as the cameras flashed, and the crowd, including actor Bruce Spence, barrister Tom Hughes, and broadcaster Margaret Throsby, pressed in.”

Gosh, it’s just like being there! Such description, such vivid prose – Verghis’s debut novel can’t be too far away.

The winner in all this – and by that we mean the media scrum – was that affable, unflappable, always quotable Edmund Capon, director of the AGNSW. He had his lines worked out in advance and he delivered them with aplomb to each and every microphone shoved his way. Watching him on TV we found it difficult to concentrate on what he was saying about the winning picture – something about sensitive lines – because of the flashy mandarin collared jacket he was wearing. What a guy.

Andrew Frost

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