Alright, time to get serious. Last year we said we’d predict who will win the 2005 Archibald Prize and we’re people of our collective word.
The first thing we need to do is explain that this is not a declaration about which work we think is the best painting. The whole notion of qualitative difference is irrelevant because the competition has rarely been about ‘good painting’ but rather a meeting of a number of different criteria. While it’s true that there are a number of hoodoos surrounding the prize which seem impossible to beat – such as the impossibility of winning the Packers Prize and the Archibald or getting into the prize if your entry has been covered in the media – these are rules that are there to be broken. It’s only a matter of time.
Another caveat is that we’re making our decisions based on the images of the works on the Art Gallery of NSW’s web site . It’s possible, although not entirely probable, that certain paintings have qualities that don’t translate to the web and will therefore be outside possibilities for a win based on elements impossible for us to take into consideration.
We say that it’s improbable because we don’t believe that the Archibald is awarded solely on painterly merit. One need only to visit the Salon des Refuses to be made painfully aware that whatever shortcomings there are in decision-by-committee, the AGNSW Trustees usually do a pretty damn fine job in selecting the finalists. What we’re looking for is some other intangible element in a painting that will make it a winner. Craig Ruddy’s portrait of David Gulpilil was a dead cert because while it was a reasonable picture, more importantly, it was also a good cause. We made the mistake of not picking it last year because we let our hearts, and not our minds, make the decision for us. This year is different.
The first thing to say about this year’s entries is that of the 36 finalists, 14 are either self portraits or portraits of other artists. We can rule just about all of those out because, although they may be fine pictures, there is no X factor to make them special. However, John Olsen, senior artist and a major figure in Australian art history, has done a rare self portrait. It’s hard to tell from the reproduction if the painting passes muster but judging from Olsen’s recent shows it would seem not. The picture could still win if sentiment is on his side. Jenny Sages’s Gloria Tamere Petyarre looks pretty unremarkable but could pick up the same sentiment vote that Ruddy did in 2004.
Another factor on this year’s comp is that the pictures are, overall, pretty dull. Rodney Pople’s Kerrie Lester, after Goya, John R Walker’s Self Portrait and Annette Bezor’s Still posing after all this time (a self portrait) being the exceptions to that rule. Artists who should win the prize some time in the future and who have entered pretty fine paintings are Ben Quilty and Michael Zavros, but neither seem to have works with enough wow factor to cut through this year.
There are plenty of paintings that are just plain fugly. Bill Hay’s Allan Mitelman and Jasper Knight’s Richard Gill look like ghastly mistakes even in reproduction and a painting of our most hated politician by Avril Thomas called The Minister from down under, shows Alexander Downer either dead, asleep or comatose, perhaps all three at once. The picture that takes the proverbial biscuit is a portrait of John McDonald by Abdul Karim Rahimi that depicts the famed art critic in a way that puts us in mind of the scene in The Ring where the hideous monster of the past spooks Naomi Watts in a mirror frame hanging on a wall. Our blood runs cold. Kerrie Lester, meanwhile, has done a portrait of Rebel Penfold Russell and if she doesn’t win this year, we’ll give her a prize of our own.
So that doesn’t leave many contenders. What we need is a portrait with enough superficial wham-bam to make people sit up and take notice. It should also be preferably head and shoulders because that’ll reproduce better in magazines and on TV and, if we’re wishing, an artist with muscular commercial backing for added art world cred. But those factors pale next to the major requirement of an Archibald winning picture; it should be, first and foremost, a portrait of someone well known, an icon of their profession, with public recognition and maybe only a few years ahead of them. That brings us to the rock solid conviction for the Archibald 2005: Jason Benjamin’s portrait of actor Bill Hunter called Staring down the past.
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