The Doug Moran National Portrait Prize is the most lucrative portrait prize in the world with the winner in receipt of $150,000 for their efforts.
While for some artists this constitutes a few years’ wages, due to the egalitarian nature of the selection process, for most it is an extraordinary Jackpot, an opportunity to further develop their practice beyond the hindrance of desperate survival.
This year’s winner, Leslie Rice, is a somewhat controversial choice due to having previously won in 2007. His nod to Velásquez with 'Self Portrait (with the Muses of Painting and Poetry)' has an almost Heavy Metal/Sci-Fi styling of masculine erotica, while undeniably striking, well crafted and fashionably mythical, didn’t particularly move me though its dark beauty certainly beguiled. Runner-up was Natasha Bieniek with her miniature 'Fading Into Blue' (pictured) and at 4x5cm this work is a mind-boggling feat of skill and application.
The prize’s charter states ‘a deep connection between the artist and their subject’ and many of the works exemplify this intimacy without sentimentality. Ann Cape’s portrait of her daughter, artist Sophie Cape, communicates a deep love and concern for the safety of her child, expressing in a raw and unapologetic way the pain and sorrow of both painter and subject. It is yet another display of her exceptional skill at crafting likeness while compelling empathy. Guy Maestri’s handling of Lily, his one hundred-year-old grandmother, offers us a similar exposure; he treats his subject with a deft, gentle and unpretentious hand, allowing the viewer unencumbered access to her fragility and strength; his sensibility of green is unmatched.
Maestri is also present as subject in Julian Meagher’s offering, setting the room alight and embracing the viewer with elegant use of line and colour, its illustrative consideration portrays a contained moment of optimism that glows with palpable respect for the sitter. Jasper Knight’s rendering of Jeffrey Smart holds you via a peaceful gaze and is incredibly sensitive though the mark and materials are audacious.
Other big heads of note are John Beard’s dazzling use of cross-hatching on 'Head-Sp 1 2012', Qiang Zhang’s 'Yesterday, Today', though a ‘double-up’ is seductively ephemeral, and the irreverence of Mel Brigg’s 'Joseph the Strange'r has impact.
Laura Jones’s bold use of brush to evoke her brother in 'Elliot' is refreshing amongst the photorealism so prevalent in contemporary portraiture; her courage and assuredness underpins the brash and poetic construction of her work. On a more metaphysical note, Giles Alexander’s macrocosmic view of Professor Brian Schmidt emphasizes our tiny place in the vast universe and reflects how identity is not simply defined by individual personality but by what we do to investigate and shape reality; I particularly enjoyed a sculptural element of this work. Breathtaking is Kristin Tennyson’s 'Good Son', in that its concept and execution are completely aligned in a very personal revelation of the spiritual development of her child, raising questions about destiny and guardianship.
As an Art lover, I commend the Moran Prize that it encourages a more personal approach from both artists and audiences. This creates an opportunity for discourse about the human condition, which is why Art is a significant and necessary human endeavour. Through painstaking observation and expression the artist reveals us to ourselves. This delicate moment where we are stood before the portrait reminds us that we are not alone and that our thoughts, feelings, behaviours and experiences are shared.
The Moran Prizes will run as a free exhibition at at the headquarters of Moran Healthcare Group (13-15 Bridge St, Sydney) commencing 25 July 2012 for three months before touring nationally.