Who should have won the Archibald?

Del Kathryn Barton won her second Archibald Prize – which has reached Melbourne – this year for her painting of actor Hugo Weaving, and it’s one of those wins that makes you ask: is it the artist or the subject who’s being rewarded here?

Don’t get me wrong. I like Barton’s work very much; doe-eyes, decadence and all. It’s free-spirited, engaging, technically impressive. It could only be by her. But her perfectly nice portrait of Weaving doesn’t come near to equalling the self-portrait that deservedly clinched the prize in 2008, a disconcerting work conveying Barton’s mystical bond with her two children. Certainly Hugo is one of the greatest actors ever to make his home in Sydney, but I find it hard to get excited about his spiritual connection with his cat.

Five worthy contenders:

1. Wendy Sharpe – 'Anything goes (Venus vamp - Burlesque star)'

If anyone deserved to win a second Archibald Prize this year I reckon it was Wendy Sharpe. Sharpe triumphed in 1996 with ‘Diana of Erskineville,’ a lusty self-portrait challenging traditional sex roles in art in which she appeared as a contradiction: a clothed odalisque, pouting while brandishing her brushes, surrounded by her works depicting both male and female full frontal nudes. Her subject this time is another buxom diva in the business of being both actively creative and passively ogled: burlesque star Venus Vamp.

In full costume, Vamp looks like she might burst into one of the songs from Cabaret. A mirror shows us the lacework of her corset. The eye is drawn along one tattooed arm, tinged blue under the stage lights, along the slinky black glove to slide down her cane past the twin fire-engines of her fishnetted knees – only to be snapped back to meet the woman’s gaze, insolent underneath a jaunty top hat. Vamp’s pose is empowered, even though she’s exposing a breast. The subject and the composition recall the Paris music-hall images of Toulouse-Lautrec, although her brushwork is closer to the female Impressionist Berthe Morisot. The picture has depth, drama, and oodles of character.

2. Michael Zavros – 'Bad Dad'

Michael Zavros has made the cut several times but I don’t recall a previous entry as richly enjoyable as his self-portrait ‘Bad Dad’. Playing upon famous paintings of Narcissus (mainly Caravaggio’s), he portrays himself loafing in a swimming pool gazing at his own reflection when (according to his artist’s statement) he ought to be paying attention to his children, who are signified by the floating toys around him. Many artists with a talent for photorealism who make it into this competition don’t have much to say in their pictures except that they expect to be gainfully employed should photography suddenly vanish from the world. Zavros does more than dazzle with his ability to reproduce the reflections of water, the sheen of skin and plastic. And he does more than comment on artistic self-obsession. He offers a hint of the uncanny as well.

3. Prudence Flint – 'Ukulele'

Odd things are happening in Prudence Flint’s portrait of academic Athena Bellas, too. Flint specialises in vaguely humorous portraits of women in enclosed geometric spaces, caught in a moment of preoccupation; they’re like cartoon Vermeers. Bellas is strumming a ukulele – there are musical instruments in about a third of Vermeer’s paintings – but Flint’s use of perspective, unlike the Dutch master’s, is wonderfully wonky; surely that apple is too small, and the body of the instrument as well? The angle of the sitter’s head and the direction of her crossed leg create sight lines that intersect jokily. Flat planes of grey and blue echo the flatness of Flint’s version of the human form, where a magenta skirt and shoes conveniently match the tinge of Bellas’s skin. The result is a kind of charged stillness, both spiritual and funny at the same time.

4. John Emmerig – 'Gageler'

Perhaps the most psychologically satisfying of the works is John Emmerig’s portrait of High Court Justice Stephen Gageler. An oddball assortment of techniques comes together in this large painting. The sitter is a glossy black form on a matt-black background. A curly squiggle of white outlines the shoulders and the waves of hair, while down-strokes of white, blue and yellow (short and square in the style of Grace Cossington-Smith) chip out the facial features. There’s a humbleness to the piecemeal composition that underlines the self-effacing character that Emmerig wished to convey. The eyes and mouth capture a likeable calm intelligence.

5. Guy Morgan – 'Guy Morgan with Peter Pan after retinal detachment'

Guy Morgan suffered a detached retina 18 months ago and his scrunched-up self-portrait is an attempt to show how he appears to himself through the damaged eye. It’s a dynamic, disturbing image – a squint-on-canvas. Nothing speaks of death to an artist more than blindness and the shape of Morgan’s head recalls a famous memento mori, the distorted skull at the bottom of Hans Holbein’s 1533 ‘The Ambassadors’, which only coalesces into the correct shape when viewed from a sharp angle. To look at this picture is to know that Morgan’s artistic eye now only sees the world from an extreme perspective. The fold in Morgan’s brow has been remarked to resemble Peter Pan – perhaps the moment when Peter stands on the rock, awaiting the tide and saying that “to die will be an awfully big adventure”. In a ho-hum year for the Archibald, Morgan’s confronting picture offers a bigger adventure than most.

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First published on 8 May 2013. Updated on 21 Jun 2013.

By Nick Dent   |  

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