I once had a friend who worked as a curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for many years who claimed never to have seen an Archibald exhibition in his life. His justification was fairly simple - the Archibald is an exhibition for people who know nothing about art and 80% of those who go to the Archibald never go to any other art exhibition, and 80% of people who frequently go to art exhibitions never go to the Archibald.
This was a few years ago and the stats probably no longer hold true (if they ever did), but the distinction between a serious exhibition and an art circus designed for popular entertainment still sounds valid. The inherent problem with the Archibald and, for that matter, the Wynne, is that they are selected and judged by people who are not art professionals - the Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW. When the Archibald was set up 99 years ago, trustees of a public art gallery were expected to be art people - artists, art teachers, curators - now they are expected to be people with deep pockets, management expertise or backgrounds in finance, fundraising or philanthropy.
Today, the eleven trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW include two artists, Ben Quilty and Tony Albert, while the rest may have a serious interest in art, but a background in commerce, finance, law, banking and philanthropy and include Mr David Gonski AC, Ms Gretel Packer AM and Ms Lucy Turnbull AO. For its purpose as trustees, it is a strong group that the gallery is fortunate to have assembled, but hardly a professional art body that you would trust to decide on the merits of painting.
I have seen more Archibald exhibitions in my life than is good for my mental health and have come to the conclusion that there are three main criteria employed for judging the prize, namely, fashion, politics and money. I am not implying that there may be something illegal or improper here - this is not the NSW government - but I suggest that all of these are assumed, implied and emerge in a consensual way.
This year's Archibald is a pretty ordinary selection of 55 largely mediocre paintings selected from the 1068 entries and, as in previous years, some of the better entries have ended up at the Salon de Refusés across town and up the hill.
The $100,000 prize for the 99th Archibald has been awarded to Vincent Namatjira's Standing strong for who you are - a portrait of the Indigenous AFL footballer Adam Goodes. In the age of the Black lives matter protests, it seemed inevitable that the prize would go to an Indigenous artist and what could be more appropriate than a self-portrait of Namatjira (the great-grandson of the renowned watercolourist Albert Namatjira) clasping hands with Goodes surrounded by smaller images of Black pride. This makes Vincent Namatjira, who started dot painting in 2012 and painting portraits in 2013, the first Australian Indigenous artist to win the Archibald.
The politics are right, the simplified caricature-like style is fashionable and already much money has been invested in promoting this promising artist aged in his late thirties. My reservation is that I don't find this a particularly strong painting and it is less adventurous and less accomplished than some other paintings by him seen in earlier Archibald exhibitions such as Self-portrait on Friday (2017), Studio self-portrait (2018) and Art is our weapon - portrait of Tony Albert (2019).
There are quite a number of Aboriginal artists in this year's Archibald, including Charlene Carrington with her quirky portrait of her father, where she notes, "In the painting, that brown hill, his hat, is Red Butte. That's a good fishing place and where the old people used to hang out. That yellow part of his hat is the sandy ground around Red Butte, the buttons are the Texas rock holes. When we were young we used to walk up there and go swimming. It's real clear, like a big pool. The moon on his neck is the necklace that I gave him that he always wore." Executed in natural ochres it is quite an effective painting. Other Aboriginal artists included are Tiger Yaltangki, Blak Douglas, Meyne Wyatt, Thea Anamara Perkins and Kaylene Whiskey.
One of the more interesting artist, who like Carrington is an Archibald first-timer, is Karen Black with her evocative and slightly weird painting of the wonderful artist Madonna Staunton in the final stages of life. Sinead Davies' portrait of Claire Dunn grows on you as you spend time with it, but strictly needs to be seen in the flesh. Wendy Sharpe's bombastic expressionist style perfectly suits her portrait of Magda Szubanski. Not a great portrait, but memorable and effective.
Is the 2020 Archibald a good show? In a word - no. Is it worth seeing? Again - no. But if you do see it - you will be viewing it in COVID comfort where you don't really have to compete with the crowds standing with their backs blocking the paintings while taking selfies.
The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes are at the Art Gallery of NSW until January 10, 2021
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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