On The Meeting of Beer, Wine and Portrait Painting

Art Life , Reviews Mar 30, 2004 No Comments

We don’t know why we think drinking a lot of beer is a good idea. We don’t know why drinking wine on top of beer is smart and clever and we haven’t the foggiest why we always think we can get away with it the next day.

We drink like there is no tomorrow and ignore the consequences. It’s a cruel lesson that you can’t outrun a hangover and even more cruel when you inevitably end up at the Art Gallery of NSW vying for space in front of a painting with dozens of school kids and Agnes Society people with brutal haircuts and suspicious smiles jostling you out of the way.

Yet we do it every year.

As do the artists. Every year people enter portraits and every year we think that maybe it’s getting slightly worse or slightly better but it’s never quite the way we imagine it should be. For every Wendy Sharpe or Cherry Hood, there’s a Jason Benjamin or a Robert Hannaford.

Let’s talk about the winner. We decided to reserve judgment until we has seen the painting in real life, rather than on the web, and we thought that Craig Ruddy’s work had a chance of winning because of the subject – the choice of subject being probably more important than the way the artist paints it – but let’s say up front that we think the David Gulpilil picture deserved to win. It’s a very handsome drawing on wall paper and the detailing of the way it’s mounted (tacked into the frame) and the show-through of the pattern makes it something really worth looking at. It’s visually interesting and Ruddy’s handling of the charcoal is assured if slightly overdone in the manner of late Brett Whiteley pictures.

Ruddy’s picture’s main drawback is that it’s drawing, not a painting. We haven’t really looked at the rules lately but we thought that this was a competition for painting, right? No matter what qualities the picture may have (or lack, depending on your opinion) it is clearly not a painting. We were wondering if some aggrieved artists might start a class action lawsuit against the gallery to have it awarded to someone who has done an actual painting. Who knows? It could happen. We’re not down on the idea that a drawing can win – we’re happy to see the rules bent in favour of a good work – but it’s just confusing when a cat wins a dog show.

We are also slightly disturbed by white artists doing paintings of Aboriginals. It has never been a particularly equitable relationship. Now, we don’t think Ruddy did the painting from anything but the best of all possible motives, but it’s worrying to see what he had to say to the Sydney Morning Herald: “You can see thousands and thousands of past generations in [Gulpilil’s] eyes…” […] “There’s such an amazing power about him.”

It’s superficial to think that the Gulpilil picture is somehow intrinsically ‘meaningful’ even if the title is David Gulpilil – Two Worlds. It’s just another painting by a white artist of an Aboriginal subject and all the good will in the world won’t change that. The conceptual link between the subject and the European wall paper is too pat to be particularly telling or significant and in the end it’s just something that hangs on a wall. There’s always a fog of emotion around pictures like this and although we think that, considering the generally duff quality level this year, it was worthy if not particularly convincing outside of its technique.

But it could have been a lot worse. Benjamin’s portrait of John Olsen is just horrible in real life. It looks as though the painting was done a la one of those card board cut outs they used to have at Circular Quay of Ronald Regan where you stood next to it and had your photograph taken and it really looked like you were with the President. We’re guessing that if you have your photo taken in front of the painting it’ll look like you’re there with Olsen but Benjamin’s painting is completely 2D, flat, poorly coloured and just nasty. The irony of this painting is how redundant it is now that Benjamin and his former gallerist Tim Olsen (son of John) have parted company – reportedly because the artist has failed to “progress”. Wasn’t that evident from the start?

Danielle Bergstrom’s Franco Belgiorno-Nettis – larger than life was the second place getter this year and earned the artist a highly commended certificate. It’s also a warning against going out in the sun without proper protection as dear Franco has skin that is reminiscent of a pizza supreme. As a painting it’s pretty much a disaster – multiple panels always appears to us as a failure of nerve and Bergstrom’s picture is overwrought, over painted and too, too much. Hold the cheese.

There’s a nice painting by Kevin Conner that’s almost overlooked and we applaud it – (We honestly never thought we’d say that as we once saw Conner’s naked arse on the roof of the art school building and we’re still in therapy about it) – and Carolyn McKay Creecy’s portrait of Bruce Spence is good for a laugh although we wondered what the actor might have thought about its Dorian Grey qualities – it’s one thing to paint your subject au naturel, it’s another to make the subject uglier than they are in reality.

Perhaps McLean Edward’s painting isn’t as good as we thought it was and maybe we were rash picking it as a winner, but as a title Martin Browne art dealer is the cheekiest in the show – maybe the artist should have added the gallerist’s address and hours of business as well? Michael Zavros is an interesting artist too – his small scale works are brilliant. And we liked his painting Portrait of Stephen Mori with Wyn Schubert and my greater Kudu, but at n square meters by x square meters it looks as though Zavros may be tipping over into chocolate box stylings and, at that size, we broke out into a cold sweat.

Then we remembered we were hungover and not having a heart attack after all. Everything was OK. We hustled out to the Photographic Prize.

Andrew Frost

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