Let’s Talk About Wynne (as in the prize)

I feel bad bagging out the Archibald because firstly everyone does it, and secondly John McDonald has already done it pretty well and I’m still recovering from agreeing with him on something. So instead I’m going to bag out the Wynne Prize.

There are 39 finalists in this year’s Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

I liked one. This one.

Tim Kyle’s ‘Gunther at ease’

Constructed from paper pulp, timber, cement and paint, Tim Kyle’s Gunther at ease is a gutsy, breathing sculpture. Notwithstanding the fact that the naked Gunther confused me terribly by having nipples but no penis, it was the only piece that brought me to a standstill. The picture doesn’t give you any idea of the size of the work which is enormous and dominates the wing of the gallery its in. That’s a good thing, because the other 38 finalists are blander than a bowl full of porridge in a nursing home. In fact, that’s exactly what the Wynne was like this year. Porridge. Boring, beige and stodgy. I wanted to like Tim Storrier’s The Jadeburg (which my friend Pete loved) but to me it fell flat, Yukultji Napangati’s Untitled failed to impress despite me almost always liking her stuff, and Stephen Pong’s Broken Well was just plain creepy. The rest weren’t even worth discussing. Perhaps I was in a bad mood that day.

The Sir John Sulman was a bit the same in that it lacked anything earth shattering, but at least the subjects were more challenging. Plus, there was a painting of a dog (Jeremy Kibel’s Portrait of Millie) and I’m a sucker for anything fluffy. If that makes me a philistine, so be it. At least it made up for the dinosaur painting. I’ve never understood the attraction of big lizards.

As for the Archy, it was better than I expected. Mike Barnard’s You Beautiful Fighter is still my sentimental favourite, but Wendy Sharpe, Heidi Yardley and Anh Do all gave me pause. Tim Maguire’s portrait of Cate Blanchett is as ethereal as the actress herself, and David Griggs managed to get a painting of a sex worker deep-throating a big black dildo past the judges, so I guess all is as it should be in Australian art.

Perhaps the most interesting exercise was reading the didactic panels to see what the artists had to say about their work. Usually I’m a voracious and unashamed reader of the children’s versions because they’re quicker and less obnoxious, but I decided to stretch myself and go the adult content. This was my favourite:


Jesus Christ, has anyone ever provided a better (and by ‘better’ I mean ‘what a load of shit’) justification for wanting to paint themselves snogging someone they fancy? Artists…what are they like?

The Archibald, Wynne & Sulman Prize
Art Gallery of NSW
Until 28 September 2014.

Art created from the heart of war

Last week I received an email from a follower to this blog asking why I thought art was worth discussing when there are so many terrible things happening in the world. Today the internet has provided me with an answer to that.

Tawfik Gebreel, a Gaza-based Palestinian architect has released a series of artwork created from his firsthand experience of life inside the Gaza Strip. Using what he refers to as the “universal humanitarian language understood by all peoples” Gebreel has sketched over images of the rising smoke of air strikes with drawings of strength, hope and despair, immediately putting the human cost of conflict in this tiny, densely-populated region into context.

In the words of the German composer Robert Shumann:
To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts – such is the duty of the artist.”

This story first appeared on Inhabitat

A Load of Old Bollocks

Ever looked at your lounge room and thought gosh what this room needs is a massive set of gonads? No, neither have I, but London based designer Gigi Barker must have because she’s created a range of lounge furniture that looks, feels, and smells like human skin. All in the shape of testicles.

I’m not sure why she decided the crown jewels would be a good idea, although she has said she wanted the user to “question their relationship and level of comfort they have in their own skin .” How thoughtful of her. I’ve always instinctively hated beanbags. Now I know why. 

Featuring both armchairs and footstools in the range, Barker infuses her reversed leather designs with silicone, aftershave and human pheromones to get the hyper realistic finish she is known for. Charming. At least there’s not a range of hairy ones I guess. Not yet, anyway. 

This really is one of those occasions where contemporary design actually is a load of old bollocks. Ugh. 


McLean Edwards, Delightfully Dishevelled

I like a freshly made bed as much as the next person, but nothing is as inviting as that same bed the next morning just after you’re out of it, all messed up and warm with your imprint. Some things are just better crumpled. Beds, like I said. Or wrapping paper. Your favourite big sloppy jumper, tablecloths, napkins, brown paper bags…things that have been used for pleasure and enjoyment, ones that show a good time was had and something wonderful occurred. To my list of delightfully dishevelled things I’m going to add artist McLean Edwards.

Image – Edwina Pickles

I first met McLean at our mutual friend Linde’s show opening in Brisbane a few years ago. I don’t actually recall if he was wearing slippers with his suit on that occasion, although there’s a fair bet he was given he has every other time I’ve seen him. He was sucking a beer and watching the crowd, probably trying to find someone fun amongst the usual gathering of serious faces at gallery openings. I don’t remember what we spoke about after being introduced, I just remember thinking he’d be great to have a beer with.

The problem with people who are good to share a pint with though is they can be dismissed as not being good for much else. Worse, they can start to believe it themselves. If you’ve pegged a guy as your good time pal you don’t necessarily want him to morph into a more introspective version of himself. But if that’s not what you’re after then don’t pick an artist as your drinking buddy and expect their thinking to go no deeper than the bowl of peanuts on the bar counter, you know? To seek out McLean solely for company at the pub is to miss entirely the best part of him.

He gives the impression of not taking the art world too seriously, but the more he talks the more apparent it becomes that he is both knowledgeable and respectful of it. I get the feeling he still can’t quite believe he can do this fun thing called painting for work, that he can earn a living by committing his daydreams and inner dialogues to canvas. Then again, I’m not sure anyone in any creative field feels any different. There’s always the sense of having dodged a bullet marked Responsible Adult Life, no matter how hard you work.

Last week in an article about the Archibald Prize, I mentioned that McLean’s face has been hung amongst the finalists almost as often as his own entries have. I understand why fellow artists are drawn to painting him. He’s a curiosity. A definitive portrait of McLean Edwards is both an appealing idea and hugely challenging because he’s impossible to capture. Trying to write about McLean is equally frustrating because words don’t do him justice either. I sent our friend Linde a photo of my enormous old thesaurus in frustration – “reckon there’ll be something in here to describe him accurately?” There isn’t. I suppose I could take the easy way out and list all the obvious things – that he’s funny and unconventional and warm. I could add that he’s modest, unassuming and wry, or describe his laugh and his slightly awkward way of interacting. Tales of his ridiculous generosity abound. He can tell a story at his expense that leaves you both slapping palm to forehead at the sheer absurdity of his life and glad he is the way he is. He is the kind of guy you’re eternally rescuing from trouble, but you don’t mind because the back story is always worth it.

There is a lovely moment in an interview done a few years back, where in the middle of a very eloquent and geniunely vulnerable discussion of how much he loves his work, he suddenly breaks off to ask the interviewer if he wants another beer. That’s McLean all over – a naturally intense thinker who snaps out of it the moment he catches himself sounding too much like one of those art wankers full of hot air and esoteric bullshit. It’s a great insight into the guy I’m trying to capture here, but  wish he’d just kept on talking because what he had to say was so touching.

McLean signs his work not with his name but with his age. The art critic Andrew Frost has described it as being a kind of countdown to his mortality, but to me it’s more like a journal entry. The subject matter may not be absolutely biographical, but as a collection of works seen in retrospect they are a beautiful tale of a life lived. The detail of his age gives context like place markers on a map, a ‘this is who I was when’ footnote. It’s an acknowledgement of the personal, but without specific reference to whatever cathartic element his paintings may hold.

I want to say that McLean’s paintings are a study in informed chaos, but that sounds like something one of the tosspots in the industry would say. They’re both scattered and composed, leaving the viewer to wonder how much of it is accidental. They’re a bit like him really. You can see the training and the influence of artists before him, but more than anything his works breathe with the same energy he does. They remind me of a lecturer I had at university who would spend a whole lesson drilling history into us only to end the class with “but it’s all irrelevant these days huh?” It was a bad joke, but there is something of that in McLean’s work. If the characters in his oil paintings could shrug their shoulders and remind us to not to take ourselves too seriously, I’m certain they would. They’re already doing that anyway.

McLean told me last year that exhibitions make him nervous, so I guess he’s feeling a little jittery right now given his new show opens at Martin Browne Contemporary this Thursday. He needn’t be worried though. The new works are brilliant, an insight into the human condition only McLean could provide.

I’ll be there to see it. I bloody can’t wait to have a beer with him.

Images used with permission by Martin Browne Contemporary.

For more information on McLean’s new series Local Heroes, click here.

Archibald, Wynn & Sulman Winners Announced

An update, and I’m more than happy to say my predictions were completely incorrect! Here are the winners:

Fiona Lowry has taken out the Archibald Prize for 2014 with her portrait of architect Penelope Seidler…

The Wynne Prize for landscape has been won by Michael Johnson with Oceania high low…

And the Sir John Sulman Prize has been awarded to Andrew Sullivan with his painting of one of my least favourite creatures, a T-Rex!

The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman winners and finalists will be on display at the Art Gallery of NSW until September 28th.

Check out more about Fiona Lowry via Martin Browne Contemporary’s website.

She Put the Broad in Broadway

Some celebrity passings are sadder than others, even when it’s a performer in their 90th year of being fabulous as Elaine Stritch was. Dying at 89 is no tragedy; it is, as they say, a good innings and it’s what happens at that end of your life. But Ms Stritch never did seem her age. Even in the last few years as she was getting visibly more frail, you still thought she’d kick on forever.

I’ve loved Elaine Stritch since I first saw her eating the scenery as Mrs McGee in The Cosby Show. In those days I didn’t know what a veteran of the stage she was, but it didn’t take long for me to figure that out. When I was 16 I was in New York City and she was on Broadway in Show Boat. My friend and I had tickets to Cats, but oh how I wish I’d seen both.

That was more than 20 years ago now, and since then her legend has grown and grown. She aged into the most lovable cantankerous old dame you could imagine. She was everything I hope to grow old enough to be. It’s only a couple of months since she appeared on the American version of the Today Show in a wheelchair saying “fuck” like she’d say “good morning.” She really did put the Broad in Broadway.

A new generation got to love her in 30 Rock, perfectly cast as Jack’s overbearing mother Colleen, but my favourite performance? Sondheim’s birthday concert in 2010. She was 85 years old, and she was perfect as she rasped her way through “I’m Still Here.” If only she was.


Don’t Go Public With Your Pubics

We’re all used to hearing about galleries copping flak for exhibiting works that the morality police would rather didn’t exist, but when the censorship comes from the galleries themselves you’ve got to wonder who’s leading who in the art world.

Last month London’s Mall Galleries, run by the Federation of British Artists, pulled this portrait by Leena McCall from the 153rd Annual Society For Women Artists exhibition they were holding:

Leena McCall Portrait of Ms. Ruby May, Standing

No specific reason was given to McCall when she was informed of the decision to remove the work, but the Federation said they had received complaints and “as an educational arts charity, the Federation has a responsibility to its Trustees and to the children and vulnerable adults who use its Galleries and Learning Centre.”

It seems Ms Ruby May’s pubic hair is to blame. There was a time when the fur collar that most offended was the one around the subject’s neck, but on this occasion dead animal is fine. A hairy lady beaver on the other hand? My god, protect the children!

I’m not a big fan of a bushy outcrop either, but only because it’s not my personal preference. I couldn’t care less if anyone else sprouted one. I certainly don’t see it as anything other than the ultimate in natural living. At least she’s saving money on wax strips, razors and depilatory creams unlike the rest of us.

The irony in this decision though is that, as an educational charity, the Federation of British Artists would probably be in full support of taking a group of kids across the English Channel to visit The Louvre in Paris. You know, that massive museum full of naked sculptures of ancient Greeks and Romans, and paintings of every woman’s boobs in history?

Evidently a bit of Classical cock is far less threatening than a hint of Contemporary snatch…

Read more here.

Visit Leena McCall’s website here.

Archibald Prize 2014

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.

Mike Barnard’s You Beautiful Fighter

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.

Weird Al Yankovic’s Word Crimes

Here’s one for the grammar nazis!

Weird Al Yankovic, a man who was omnipresent in my youth but who now pops up only occasionally, has taken his signature parody style and smacked Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines fair in its punctuation marks.

I’m one of the few people that couldn’t see what all the fuss was about in Thicke’s song, mostly because the old lesbian in me was too busy appreciating the filmclip. Weird Al’s version might not have quite such spectacular scenery, but it’s still pretty damn catchy.

Besides, some might say the correct use of grammar is totally sexy anyway…

Happy Birthday Proust (is that a question?)

If you are as voracious a reader of Vanity Fair as I am, the Proust questionnaire will be familiar to you. Featuring on the back page of every issue since 1993, the questionnaire originated as a bit of fun in the 1880s as a sort of personality test between friends. Today it’s still both a bit of fun and a sort of personality test, so I thought I’d give it a crack in honour of Marcel Proust’s birthday!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
No demands

What is your most marked characteristic?
Passionate ambivalence 

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Being here.

What is your greatest fear?
Finding myself at the point when I no longer want to be here. 

What historical figure do you most identify with?
Dorothy Parker. 

Which living person do you most admire?
Anyone who can drink a bottle of vodka and get up the next morning without a hangover.

Who are your heroes in real life?
The ones who don’t seek sympathy. 

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Willful ignorance

What is your favorite journey?
The one that leads me home

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Sympathy and originality.

Which word or phrases do you most overuse?
Anything with four letters 

What is your greatest regret?
Just one? 

What is your current state of mind?

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
The stress. 

What is your most treasured possession?

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Feeling unlovable. 

Where would you like to live?
In the present. 

What is your favorite occupation?

What is the quality you most like in a man?

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Whatever the quality is that makes a woman intelligently, wittily, imaginatively curious about the world.

What are your favorite names?
Moet & Chandon

What is your motto?
“We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars” Oscar Wilde