Back in 2000 when Adam Cullen won the Archibald Prize for his portrait of David Wenham there was talk in certain quarters that “things had changed”, that somehow this was going to become a prize for contemporary art. Although Cullen’s painting well deserved to win, the truth of the matter was that the prize was a consolation for the fact that a better painting, his portrait of his cousin Max Cullen, was overlooked in 1999 for the histrionic awfulness of Euan McLeod’s Self Portrait/Head Like A Hole. Although the rather dull, traditionalist and faux-serious painting John Bell as King Lear by Nicholas Harding took the prize in 2001 Cherry Hood won in 2002 for Simon Tedeschi Unplugged and it seemed like a course correction back towards progress. Since then, however, we’ve had Geoffrey Dyer’s utterly forgettable portrait of Richard Flannigan and Craig Ruddy’s Whiteley-redux David Gulpilil. And now we have John Olsen winning after all those years of trying.
Perhaps it was just wishful thinking that the old and creaky prize could connect to what’s happening in the art world. But it has happened before, and the prize has been in danger of becoming “contemporary” a few times. Looking back to Brett Whiteley’s self portrait wins from 1976 and 1978, Nigel Thomson’s painting of Chandler Coventry in 1983 and William Robinson’s 1987 Equestrian Self Portrait proved that with the right painting, the prize can actually represent some sort of progressive, forward thinking notion of art.
Olsen’s win this year has in, the minds of many, simply reinforced a deeply held prejudice that the prize is an out-and-out reactionary holdover from the days before cameras. The proof of its irrelevancy is a year of entrants that are about as uninspiring and average as you could imagine. It is so woeful, it is argued, that the Trustees should be asked – why did they feel it necessary to award a prize at all? In 1964 and 1980 the Trustees did the principled thing and didn’t award a prize because nothing was good enough. In that context you could say that Olsen won it this year because he was the last man standing. The flipside of this argument is that the Archibald is an excuse unto itself. It is what it is and although there’s $35,000 and year’s worth of free publicity attached, we shouldn’t get all bent out of shape just because it’s kind of crap this year.
The truth is somewhere in the middle. The exhibition and prize giving is a garish sideshow but it’s also a barometer of who is entering the prize. We seriously doubt there are any masterpieces and missed opportunities hanging in the Salon Des Refuses, so the question to be asked is this – if people want this prize to be relevant why aren’t artists entering the prize? It doesn’t matter that a portrait is outside most artists’ painting practice, it’s simply a matter of artists applying themselves to a new problem and seeing what happens. In lieu of any other sort of relevant prize, it’s literally the only show in town. Roll the dice and see what happens.