Year Of The Very Big Head

McDonald, John, Sydney Morning Herald

The subjects and the canvases loom large, but John McDonald wishes more of this year's Archibald finalists were bolder.

DEJA VU: that feeling of having experienced something before. Welcome to the 2006 Archibald Prize, featuring the same artists you may have seen in the previous year's competition, and the one before that.

The Archibald never changes too drastically from year to year. There is always some minor controversy. There is an indigestible mixture of the most conservative and loopy kinds of portrait. Entertainment is the name of the game with this annual crowd-pleaser.

If one follows those unwritten guidelines for picking an Archibald winner, this year should be the year of a big head rather than full figure. It is also the year for a more realistic work rather than an expressionistic one. By this line of reasoning, John Beard's Ken Unsworth would be in the slot, as the most impressive "big head" painted with a kind of photographic precision.

The Beard is certainly one of the better pictures in a pretty dismal selection. Yet I will be surprised if anything gets past Ben Quilty's Adam Cullen - before and after.

The longer I looked at the offerings on display, the more this painting stood out. It has been given the prime spot in the hang, framed by successive doorways. Factor in that Quilty is a well-regarded young artist who made an impressive Archibald debut last year with a portrait of Beryl Whiteley, and the odds are shrinking fast.

Let's take a more systematic look at some of the likely and unlikely candidates.

This painting is full of bravura. Quilty slaps on the paint with a trowel, yet manages to capture a very good likeness of his subject. Two-panelled pictures often seem stagey or laboured, but this one has a Jekyll and Hyde aspect - the dark, leering Adam Cullen in the left-hand panel, and the sober, demure model on the right. This is a horribly close to life, reflecting Cullen's alternating ambitions of being the darling of the avant-garde, and the toast of the art establishment. There is nothing finicky or cautious about this painting, and this alone makes it stand out from a timid field.

Another artist painting an artist. Beard's portrait of the sculptor Hilary Mais was well-received last year, and this always helps one's chances next time around. Using a very limited palette, Beard has brought off a striking likeness of Ken Unsworth, who wears his usual haunted look. Where Quilty goes for broke, Beard conjures a form of understated intensity. The portrait may, however, be a little too introverted to be a winner.

Will Kerrie Lester, the eternal Archibald bridesmaid, ever win the prize? If the trustees wanted to be merciful they could very credibly give it to this portrait of director Phillip Noyce, which is Lester's best entry for the past few years. Noyce has one of those expressive faces that artists love to paint and sculpt, and the painting is beautifully simple and gimmick-free. That is, so long as one allows for Lester's trademark stitched outlines.

McLean Edwards, another young lion, has already received a good deal of publicity for this typically awkward picture of the actor and her family. It is a painting in which the parts don't quite gel, and the ghost of caricature hovers in the wings. Yet it has a degree of originality that sets it apart from most of the other entries. Clumsiness in art is less of a sin than cliche. 

Paul Ryan's portrait of a fellow devotee of Very Thick Paint, Nicholas Harding, is at first glance a good, lively picture, with a surface that never sits still. It gets a bit scratchier on closer acquaintance, with the accumulation of paint on the face echoing that of a famous Lucian Freud self-portrait. But if the trustees were looking to reward an artist who really struggles, it would be hard to overlook this battlefield of a canvas.

This is the talking point this year: a western desert painting nominated as a self-portrait, that looks - to all intents and purposes - like all the other western desert paintings we know as landscapes. Weaver Jack owes his inclusion to the judges' desire to show they care about cultural differences.

I hope he's not already spending the prize money.

One has to ask why the trustees are hanging Adam Cullen's portrait of the director of the Art Gallery of NSW when two years ago they refused to hang one by Shen Jiawei? It can't be because Cullen's is the better picture. It's a shocker. Capon is given the George A. Romero treatment, as one of the Living Dead. Compare this work to Ben Quilty's portrait of Cullen himself, and you can only think that both artist and the trustees are not being serious.

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Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 17, 2006.

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