The Archibald Prize Exhibition at the NSW Art Gallery winds up on Sunday. That doesn’t leave much time, but, having seen it myself now, I strongly endorse Nicholas’s advice from two months ago — see it if you can. And if you have children between seven and twenty, take them. This kind of art exhibition is a great way to get people who doubt their expertise to engage with and discuss art. Humans have such a strong reaction to representations of fellow humans that we feel qualified to criticise portraits and hang our aesthetic values out on the line in the process, whereas in discussing an exhibition of landscapes or abstract sculptures, we might be timid and self-conscious to the point of apathy.
Even so, it’s hard to know what criteria to apply in judging portraits. The most obvious one is whether it’s a good likeness, but there are several problems with this. First, whereas it might be a useful way to discriminate between a bunch of amateur portraits, the calibre of artist whose work is accepted into a competition like the Archibald doesn’t have any trouble achieving a likeness if that’s her aim. The ‘realistic’ pictures, are all perfectly adequate as likenesses, so you need to find other criteria.
Second, many of them don’t attempt a likeness anyway, in the everyday sense, but rather try to interpret the subject’s personality and achievements in other ways. If a picture’s subject is depicted as a fish, and this happens to succeed brilliantly in conveying his life-long passion for marine ecology, it’s hardly fair to compare it unfavourably with a more conventional portrait.
Third, the very idea of a likeness is not itself straightforward. The visual cues that make a subject recognisable may have as much to do with convention and habituation as with innate perceptual mechanisms. But even the latter operate in ways that needn’t have much to do with accurate draftsmanship, as Gombrich pointed out in his marvelous essay, “The mask and the face: the perception of physiognomic likeness in life and in art”. Well known politicians can be depicted with a few lines representing eyebrows, buck teeth, or — as in the famous case of Richard Nixon — a long nose. Alan Moir used to depict John Button as a button, and after a while it did actually start to look like him in some eerie fashion. I guess this is why the rules exclude caricatures, but I can’t say I’ve ever understood exactly where the boundary lies between a caricature and an expressionistic portrait that exaggerates certain features of the subject. I very much doubt that it has been resolved to the satisfaction of the more realistic Archibald entrants, notwithstanding the best efforts of Justice Roper.
It’s also obvious that we react quite differently to pictures of familiar faces, as opposed to portraits of people whom we come to know through studying the portrait itself, and I’m sure we apply quite different standards. Probably like many people, I’m a sucker for affectionate pictures of people I know and like from TV. So I liked the portraits of Brian Dawe and the cooking duo, but my favorite was Nick Stathopoulos’s picture of David Stratton. Whereas Stratton usually appears in a glamorous light, on a colourful TV set, enjoying the social side of cinema, here we are reminded that he spends the bulk of his life in this lonely, gloomy, world out of time — and that this takes its toll. On the other hand, my second favourite was Ben Quilty’s self portrait, though his face is unfamiliar; but I liked it for intangible reasons that someone might share and help me to articulate.
I liked Nicholas’s favourite — ‘The Sisters’ by Zai Kuang. But I was surprised he didn’t comment on what for me was the most striking thing about it, namely the disturbing, Magritte-like, interior architecture. The front sister is sitting on a window sill inside, but the girl behind is also indoors, in a room or corridor with a skylight behind her. It can’t be a reflection, because we know from the skylight that it’s daylight outside, in which case there would be no reflection on the interior side of the window. It could be a room in an inner city house that has a window onto a corridor to let in some external light from the skylight, but I haven’t seen anything quite like that. I’m not sure to what extent my confusion was part of the artist’s objective.
And I agree with him about the winner, the self portrait by Del Barton. One can appreciate the art in the design and decoration, but the weird, stylised depiction of the mother and children is too unsympathetic, and doesn’t urge the eye to linger. The massive photo-realistic picture of Neil Finn was a waste of time and space. I tend to think that it’s cheating to have multiple images of the subject in the one picture — unless there is some overwhelming justification — so I didn’t warm to Vincent Fantauzzo’s picture of Heath Ledger either.
Perhaps there should be prizes in different categories — for the best ‘conventional’, ‘art’, and ‘media celebrity’ portraits, respectively.
If you can’t make it, here again is the web version.