Archibald Prize 2017 review: A difference between male and female portraitists

In News November 21, 2017 Robert Nelson

Archibald Prize 2017
Geelong Art Gallery, until 10 December

Athena Bellas is so perfect that she doesn’t make an impression on the bed. She levitates above the bedclothes like a theorem, both nimble and buxom, giving the casual gesture of hands on head impeccably balanced, prim but relaxed, with her feet pursed together above the bedspread that underscores their composure.

Prudence Flint's 'The Meal' (detail).

This harmonious purple, pink and sage portrait by Prudence Flint in the Archibald Prize is called The Meal. The diminutive apple on the side table is surely not the meal in question; and it remains a puzzle as to whether Athena is collectedly planning the repast or is already digesting it.

The women in this year’s Archibald are self-possessed, thoughtful, often introspective. Meanwhile, most of the men seem either conspicuously powerful or boastfully vain: proud of their mess, theatrical or commanding, even twisting their occasional humility into bombast.

Consider Natasha Walsh’s small self-portrait The Scent of Rain. To come up with this delicate, inquisitive presence, painted on a modest scale, neither the painter nor the model could have been male.

The power of women is not lost on women artists. Yvette Coppersmith’s Professor Gillian Triggs depicts the a human rights scholar who, against government pressure, had to be as forbiddingly purposeful as Coppersmith represents. But her formidable frontal address is softened by decorative agreements between dress and background. The pattern presses the aesthetic mutuality of sitter and social environment onto the picture plane.

When women turn the brush on themselves, rich symbolic reflexions emerge, as when Tsering Hannaford theatrically puts her hand on her sternum. The gesture recalls a classical pose for the repentant Mary Magdalen; but Hannaford looks to us instead of the cross, holding a brush in the left hand in front of a hidden canvas. In her no-nonsense style, Hannaford reclaims Magdalen’s agony as the artist’s struggle with sincerity.

Symbols are everywhere. A tearful Jessica Ashton wears her daughter’s tutu around her neck, like the ruff of a clown who is both joyful and sad. Madeleine Winch and Kate Beynon both locate their faces amid numerous symbols of their identity and work.

Allusive props and symbolism are used by women even when the mood turns to high spirits, as in Sophia Hewson’s outrageous alpine fantasy of the Indigenous artist and activist Richard Bell skipping through a Spring meadow with a blonde Madchen, plus Disney animals to guide their euphoria like renaissance angels.

Bell – notwithstanding his provocation that “white girls can’t hump” – is delighted with the trophy package plus invitation to colonise Switzerland.

The work of male painters is less subtle and more about the spaces people occupy. There are plenty of pictures of funny people, like Phil Meatchem’s Aah Yeah, That Guy, with the actor Francis Greenslade mansprawling on a couch; or Marcus Wills’ portrait of Thomas Wright as a filmic bruiser in Protagonist, Antagonist.

To be fair to the boys, their subject matter is often big, charismatic men, like Paul Newton’s Rupert Myer AO or Robert Hannaford’s Michael Chaney.  But even with men who don’t represent corporate authority, there’s a tendency towards rhetorical exaggeration – as with Anh Do’s thickly painted JC, where the Aboriginal actor Jack Charles looms massively over the void like a bunyip in the dark, spilling his hoary glow in the billabong as a portentous reflection.

There are exceptions to the rule where males are gentle, like Richard Lewer’s delicately naive Liz Laverty or Keith Burt’s Bare Tarragh; and David Griggs’ Twisting Cain has a winsome confessional humour under the twin faces, like an angry Janus.

Unequivocally happy is Vincent Namatjira’s Self-portrait on Friday. The artist gives the thumbs up – not to us but to his working week just ended. The title is poetic in itself, alluding to the prospect that a Thursday or a Saturday could present a different Vincent, as our whole disposition changes by daily turns of fortune.

Many portraits gain intrigue through mannerism, like Noel Thurgate’s 3D Homage to Peter Powditch or Tony Costa’s graphic-style Simon Chan. The winner, Mitch Cairns, uses grids and geometries to present Agatha Gothe-Snape on a magic Matissean carpet in a red interior, navigating a universe of aesthetic formulae.

Can she trust the world given to her by a male painter?

Originally published on as ‘Archibald Prize 2017 review: A difference between male and female portraitists ‘.