Has anyone ever likened the Archibald Prize to the Melbourne Cup before? Someone must have – they are as alike as two annual events from two completely unrelated fields with nothing in common can be. The eminent event in both their fields, they are as much about the spectacle, the famous faces, the ego, champagne, money, prestige, bragging rights…you get the gist.
Unlike the Melbourne Cup though, I actually enjoy the Archibald. I know it’s not really an exhibition of the best portraiture done in Australia each year, I know the Doug Moran Prize for portraiture offers twice as much prize money to the winner and is far more serious, and I know a lot of the hype is about which artists managed to get which celebrity to sit for them rather than the work itself – but it’s the closest thing we get to real excitement from the wider community about Australian art, so I’m damn well going to support it.
That being said, I wish it gave back as much love as it gets from our relationship. Every year when the Archibald comes around I’m more excitable than Bart Cummings’ eyebrows in a Flemington gale waiting to see who’s made the final, and every year I’m left unsatisfied. I’m even worse when the winner is announced. It’s always the way with big events. The legend is greater than the reality. No one remembers who won the Oscar each year either, they only remember who fell over on the red carpet. I can recall a few standout winners of the Archibald, artists whose work really grabbed me like Ben Quilty’s portrait of Margaret Olley and Nicholas Harding’s painting of John Bell as King Lear, but for the most part I only recall feeling deflated by the field.
Criticism of the Archibald and its selection process arises every year. I don’t really feel the need to add to it, although some of their defences really are quite silly. I mean, the rules ensure that the artists signatures be covered during the viewing to avoid nepotism, but if a numskull like me can recognise a Del Kathryn Barton or an Abbey McCulloch whizzing by, then I’d be fairly confident the trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW can too. I’m not sure it’s necessarily a huge issue, but it seems daft to deny it. And even if it as random as they say, it certainly feels very formulaic. You only need to look at the last twelve years of finalists to see a pattern – a painting of Cate Blanchett is always on the cards, as are Indigenous sporting heroes and whoever won Australian of the Year. Michael Zavros is a sure bet as is Mathew Lynn, whose 15th time as a finalist this year makes him the Meryl Streep of the Archibald. And the one that always makes my nose twitch – a portrait of a person of Asian extraction portrayed within a landscape dotted with Chinese writing (this is often done as a triptych just to drive home the subject’s heritage). If you happen to have painted an Indigenous sporting hero who is also the current Australian of Year…well your painting is a dead certainty. Just ask Alan Jones who is in this year with AFL star and Aussie of the Year Adam Goodes.
The other thing that makes me question the randomness of inclusion is the Archibald’s penchant for a good crossover, where an artist is also the subject of another finalist’s entry. Artists really seem to love painting each other, which I guess makes sense. I’d probably paint my friends too if I knew how to use a paintbrush. I certainly write about them often enough. This year Tim Maguire is among the finalists with his portrait of Cate Blanchett (ding!) while Mia Oatley is in with her portrait of Tim Maguire, and Troy Quinliven is in with his portrait of Rodney Pople who gets a hang this year with his portrait of Barry Humphries. If you really want to push it, the Packing Room Prize for 2014 has already been won by previous Archibald Prize winner (and subject) Tim Storrier, who entered a painting of Sir Les Patterson, alter ego of Barry Humphries.
The darling of this arty interweaving though is McLean Edwards. His face has hung in the Archibald almost as often as his own entries have. In 2004 David Bromley painted Edwards, who was a fellow finalist with a painting of his Sydney art dealer Martin Browne. In 2007, Edwards painted Browne again, while Alexander McKenzie painted Edwards. Last year Edwards was a finalist with Glenn Barkley and Jason Benjamin made it in with Edwards. Confused? Don’t be. Just know that it’s not an Archibald without McLean Edwards in there somehow. This is one of the few years he’s neither, but only because he was too busy with a forthcoming solo show to enter.
It’s not that the subjects aren’t worthy – they are 100% deserving of being immortalised. It’s just that the role-call of both artists and sitters doesn’t seem to vary much from year to year and therefore rarely delivers anything that blows my head off. And yet in some weird art world version of Stockholm Syndrome, I continue to come back for more. Why? Because I like to feel like I know what I’m talking about, and the Archibald does accessible art really well. It might not be very demanding, but I visit the Archibald each year for the same reason I still own the ugliest pair of ugg boots you’ve ever seen. I know what I’m getting when I set foot in it.
For what it’s worth I’d like to see Mike Barnard win this year with his portrait of his mother, titled You Beautiful Fighter. It’s hauntingly executed, and lovely both in appearance and back story. I suspect either Anh Do’s portrait of his father or Jandamarra Cadd’s Archie Roach tribute will pip it at the post, but I’ll be putting money on Barnard’s nose anyway.
See more about the 2014 Archibald Prize here.
Here’s more of Mike Barnard’s work.
All images taken from the Art Gallery of NSW website, except for John Bell as King Lear by Nicholas Harding, taken from the National Portrait Gallery website.