An Exhibition Like No Other
The Archibald Prize captures the attention of the Australian public like no other exhibition, much to the frustration of curators across the country who vie for media attention and regard for all manner of projects.
So why is it that every year a portrait prize competition causes such an outbreak of speculation and ardent opinion from people who never visit a gallery under normal circumstances?
The ability of Art Gallery of New South Wales Director, Edmund Capon and his staff to stage-manage a bit of a frenzy is certainly a factor but it’s also more than that. Portraiture invokes two surprisingly vague concepts: likeness and essence. The idea that a portrait will somehow achieve both of these in some degree seems to be a difficult equation. At the same time the painting needs to hold together, as a successful, though not necessarily pleasing picture.
The combination of these elusive and inevitably subjective qualities make debate and controversy inevitable. The judges bring their particular preferences to the task and there is almost an expectation that most onlookers will disagree. It also helps of course that the subjects of Archibald pictures are likely to be at least well known, possibly infamous or commonly just plain old celebrities of one variety or another.
After all, one of the defining preoccupations of our time is our delirious embrace of celebrity and the Archibald is yet another forum for peering at prominent football coaches, business people, actors, musicians and criminals. Who will be painted this year? A Survivor, an Australian Idol or a makeover maven?
Australian artists have struggled for a share of the celebrity spotlight since bad-boy Brett Whiteley’s ignominious demise. At least in the Archibald melee they gain some modest profile as filters for our perceptions of who is famous but sadly the painter is likely to be forgotten rather more quickly than the star subject.
For this years’ Archibald a Mildura artist (or more accurately an expatriate Mildura artist) is bravely preparing a picture.
Milan-based* Andrea Smith trapped her celebrity subject in a basement kitchen for the long hours required to make her painting. Arresting the explosive energy of Mildura cook and arts patron Stefano de Pieri for long hours is in itself, a considerable task. Making an image that expresses the complex man demands much more.
I saw the picture, nearing completion, under the uncompromising fluorescent light of the kitchen at Stefano’s restaurant. I am sure better lighting will have revealed, to much better effect, the richness of the colours and the luminous quality that the artist achieves by using an underlay of gold leaf.
The image is an ‘environmental portrait’ of the cook, in his kitchen, with emblematic tools of his trade, wooden spoon and massive stockpot. Perhaps also a rather blunt reference to a certain capacity for “stirring the pot”.
This is very much a realist and unromanticised portrait that confronts the viewer with precisely observed detail rather than expressive us of paint. A sense of contained restlessness is immediate in the image of a rather stern Stefano.
Here’s hoping that Andrea Smith’s work is selected for the Archibald exhibition and that it even might catch the eye of this year’s judges.