Archibald and serendipity

Art Gallery of NSW entrance

Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prize, 2017
Art Gallery of NSW – $18 adult, $16 concession, $14 members
29 Jul – 22 Oct 2017 and then to regional centres.

Now in its 96th year, the $100,000 Archibald Prize for the ‘best’ portrait painting has been settled.

The 43 finalists, selected from 822 entrants, are such a chocolate box, there’s something to please everyone. There’s big and small, figurative, photo-realist, primitivist and any other style you can think of, hung in a fairly confined space. Add to this the crowds – the Prize’s tradition of controversy is designed to encourage visitors (I was there on a Thursday morning and it was already cheek to jowl) so there’s no space to contemplate, reflect or consider. It’s a raucous, noisy and expensive experience and I advise you to see what you can and escape with your notepad and pencil intact (although the explanatory labels and artist statements are very helpful, as is the website).

Accompanying the Archibald are the Wynne Prize for best landscape painting of Australian scenery, or figure sculpture, and the Sulman Prize for the best subject painting, genre painting or mural project in oil, acrylic, watercolour or mixed media.

Here’s my two favourites.  Phil Meatchem’s portrait of the comedian Francis Greenslade – made me laugh and given it’s titled  ‘oh yeah that guy’ it warmly recognises an actor who often plays straight man to the lead comedian.


Joan Ross’  ‘oh history you lied to me’  which won the Sulman Prize, is a terrific piece riffing on colonial collecting. The painting shows a catacomb of curiosities, including some disturbing holographic images of a cat’s nose and eye. The artist uses hi-vis as a metaphor for colonisation – and re-casts the young aristocrat Mr Andrews from Thomas Gainsborough’s 1750 painting in hi-vis with a butterfly net.



Having escaped the crowds, I had to choose between going up to an exhibition on the making of modernism with Georgia O’Keefe, Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington-Smith – or going down. Naturally, I took the down escalator and there on a floor closed for refurbishment was the (empty) photographic gallery with an exhibition by Pat Brassington called ‘the body electric’. This comprises (mostly) black and white prints of surreally distorted bodies – the back of a head and neck, fingers pressed against an elbow. I also came across this wonderful diptych – called The Branching.

409.2015.a-b##SWhile the other images in the exhibition are of claustrophobic interior spaces The Branching conveys a sense of depthless space. The curatorial statement talks about ‘…the metaphor of the tree of life…formulated in the 19th century by Charles Darwin in his attempts to explain his theories of evolution; here, Brassington pairs tree and woman blasted by light in a form of gothic ecstasy.’

Whew! After all that I needed some sunshine. So I collected my things and walked back across the grass and sat for a while watching two old men smoking and playing chess on the life-size board beneath the branching trees of Hyde Park. As I ate my apple, I thought about how it’s those chance encounters that make galleries and museums so enriching.

Images – Art Gallery of NSW entrance, Nick-D; paintings, copyright each artist c/- The Art Gallery of NSW.

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