The Archibald Prize: Week 180

'Penelope Seidler' - Medium: acrylic on canvas - Artist: Fiona Lowry

‘Penelope Seidler’ – Medium: acrylic on canvas – Artist: Fiona Lowry

The Archibald Prize is one of the most prestigious arts awards in Australia. The annual prize is named after an Art Gallery of NSW trustee and since 1921 it has been given to the best portrait made in Australia/New Zealand.

To be eligible for the $75,000 prize, the entrant must reside in Australia or New Zealand for one year prior to submission deadlines. JF Archibald had stipulated in his will that the subject be ‘preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics.’ While this guideline is more loosely interpreted, the following rules are hard and fast:

  • Must be a painting.
  • Must be a portrait painted from life, with the subject known to the artist, aware of the artist’s intention and having at least one live sitting with the artist.
  • Must NOT exceed the size limit of 90,000 square cm (eg 3 × 3 m, 1.5 × 6 m). Dimensions apply to the actual work of art, not the mounting or framing. Exhibition wall height is 3.4 m, floor to ceiling.
  • May be a multi-panel work as long as the overall dimensions do not exceed the size limit above.
  • May be painted in any medium (eg oil, acrylic, watercolour, mixed media).
"I wanted to paint him as a mountain" - Medium: oil on canvas - Artist: Abdul Abdullah

“I wanted to paint him as a mountain” – Medium: oil on canvas – Artist: Abdul Abdullah

The guidelines might be clear-cut, but they’ve still generated their fair share of debates. Throughout the 20s and 30s, artists were conservative in their subjects and style. Realism dominated and it wasn’t until the early 40s that a radically different kind of portraiture won the prize.

"Evan on a Sunday morning at the gallery having a ginger tea with some old fat snoring man and some lady pushing someone's annoying crying baby around in a blue pram, and no, you can't smoke here mate" - Medium: Ink on Chinese paper - Artist: Jason Phu

“Evan on a Sunday morning at the gallery having a ginger tea with some old fat snoring man and some lady pushing someone’s annoying crying baby around in a blue pram, and no, you can’t smoke here mate” – Medium: Ink on Chinese paper – Artist: Jason Phu

William Dobell had painted a fellow artist Joshua Smith. What ensued can only be described by the Art Gallery of NSW as a shit storm. Their words, not mine:

Opposition to the win was intense and two Royal Art Society members, Joseph Wolinski and Mary Edwards, took legal action against Dobell and the Gallery’s trustees, alleging that Joshua Smith was ‘a distorted and caricatured form’ and therefore not a portrait. In contrast, the supporters of Dobell described the portrait as both ‘a likeness or resemblance of the sitter and a work of art’, which allowed for distortion for the purpose of art.

Mr Joshua Smith - Medium: Oil on canvas - Artist: William Dobell

Mr Joshua Smith – Medium: Oil on canvas – Artist: William Dobell

In response to critics, Dobell said that when he painted a portrait he was ‘… trying to create something, instead of copying something. To me, a sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject. So long as people expect paintings to be simply coloured photographs they get no individuality and in the case of portraits, no characterisation. The real artist is striving to depict his subject’s character and to stress the caricature, but at least it is art which is alive.’

The case stimulated massive press coverage and public comment – by those both familiar and totally unfamiliar with art. Ultimately, the Dobell case became a lively debate about modernism. The question of whether the painting was portraiture or caricature equally asked the questions of what constituted a portrait and what was the relationship of realism to art in general. Justice Roper upheld Dobell’s award on the grounds that the painting, ‘although characterised by some startling exaggeration and distortion… nevertheless bore a strong degree of likeness to the subject and undoubtedly was a pictorial representation of him.’

"Real thing" - Medium: acrylic and oil on canvas - Artist: Mia Oatley

“Real thing” – Medium: acrylic and oil on canvas – Artist: Mia Oatley

Controversy struck again in 1975 when artist John Bloomfield’s photo-realist painting was disqualified. The image was based on a photograph of a British-Australian filmmaker he had never met. By way of the ruling, it was clear that capturing the essence of a known individual was more important than just realistic rendering alone.

Not too many boats were rocked at 2014 Archibald awards though. There was a lot of good work, the right amount of questionable stuff, and a few oddballs; however pretty much everyone agreed that the painting Rose Seidler was worthy of the substantial award.

The winner Fiona Lowry might have been walking on air, but I was also feeling pretty lucky to have been given a free ticket to an exclusive reception with the artists. There were delicious hors d’oeuvres and a buffet table of free champagne. My friend and I traipsed through the galleries back to front and when we scaled the marble steps back up to the foyer we were greeted with anther flute of champagne.

I already love art receptions, but this was like being upgraded to business class. Cheers to the JF Archibald for getting this ball rolling.

About: the Archibald Prize

How to get to the Art Gallery of New South Wales:  Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney NSW 2000

Scandinavian Film Festival: Week 176

Scandinavian Film Festival 2014 in Sydney

Sweden reminds me of: little strawberries that stain fingers red, twenty-four hour sunlight, swimming in frigid water, and picking flowers. Those aren’t the most obvious connections, but that was my experience and what Sweden means to me.

So when I heard about the Scandinavian Film Festival, I was interested to see a movie about Sweden through someone else’s eyes. Barret and I chose a romantic comedy named Hemma (Home) that was screening at the Palace Cinema in Leichhardt. Like so many other theaters in Australia, it lacked the sticky psychedelic carpets and nacho carts of my American childhood.

The lobby was stained concrete and decorated with wire furniture in earth tones. The scent of butter popcorn and gourmet coffee wafted across the room. A few patrons sat inside black leather booths and licked hand-scooped ice cream. A large glass wall overlooked a balcony and the main street below.

It was almost too nice of a day to be indoors, but the movie was worth it. Unlike a majority of rom-coms which revolve around absurdly farfetched scenarios, Hemma focused on funny dialogue and quirky characters.

Most importantly though, there was a scene where a bunch of people jump into the frigid ocean. How reassuringly Swedish.

About: the Scandinavian Film Festival

How to get to Palace Norton Street: 99 Norton Street, Leichhardt NSW

BYO Cinema at Central Park: Week 175

Central Park: Sydney, Australia

For as long as I’ve been in Sydney, at least as long as I can remember, there has been a construction site near Central Station. The levels kept rising, as any build would, but once they reached their apex this odd cantilevered part stuck out. Then there were plants. Lots of them. They grew up the walls of the building in tiger strip patterns and spilled over the edge like urban Spanish moss.

It became one of those buildings where every time you walk by you have to look up and make some sort of comment on the progress. I wonder what that shiny thing is? How are they going to wash those windows? How long will the plants survive up there?

Eventually the construction ceased and Central Park opened. The residential towers rose above a mix of retail shops and restaurants. During the day the cantilevered section glittered like the surface of water and at night it twinkled like a web of LED threads.

One day Barret and I finally walked inside Central Park and found the inside as verdant as the outside. The escalator was surrounded in a leafy whirlpool and perky little succulents adorned the patio tables.

We also discovered that the third level of the building housed a non-profit arts organization called Brand X. They provide, “subsidised workspace and creative development programs alongside facilities where artists can traverse the entire creative process from development to presentation.” It was pretty amazing, considering the cost of real estate, that Central Park had galleries and studios set aside for independent artists.

While the work was great, Barret and I were most interested in the BYO Cinema on Tuesday nights. Guests were obviously encouraged to bring their own alcohol and food, but that was only half the story. Participants could also bring their own ‘cinema experience’: a rug, a pink flamingo, a bathrobe, a purple unicorn, anything.

After going over a mental checklist of the stuff we owned, I decided the easiest theme would be a campsite. Tuesday evening I raced home from work and packed the inflatable mats, tin cookware, trail mix, wine, headlamps, pillows, and picnic blanket. On the way out the gate I stopped for a handful of broken eucalypt branches and stuffed them in my bicycle basket.

Ticket to BYO Cinema at Central Park: Sydney, Australia

I looked a little crazy walking into the shiny new building with a clutch of branches under my arm, but the guy at the door appreciated my bundle. “Oh my God!” He exclaimed as he gave me a clip of film for my ticket, You brought the fags!

While I inflated the mats Barret began to make a ‘campfire’. He put a blinking red bike light inside a paper bag to soften the glow and then piled up the branches around it in a conical shape. The result was a soft, flickering campfire that we could all gather around.

Just before the documentary began, the event organizers made an announcement about the upcoming film schedule. “I would also like to point out the winner for the best theme tonight because the bar has been set to a new level. Everyone, please take a look at the campsite and their fire!”

Not only was the evening’s documentary very interesting, but we also won a bottle of champagne and a DVD. It was such a fun experience that I’m already thinking about the next theme. I love Central Park, I love BYO Cinema, and above all I think my friends would say I love winning.

About: Central Park

About: Brand X

About: BYO Cinema

Rose Seidler House: Week 165

Rose Seidler House: Wahroonga, Australia

When [the] house was finished, people used to come in … people were four deep. My mother had to leave the house sometimes on the weekend, because they were all standing around the windows you know, trying to see this incredible contraption’ (architect Harry Seidler, 2003).

The most famous Australian architect, Harry Seidler, began life in pre-war Austria. After the Anschluss of 1938 (the political union between Austria and Germany), he and his family fled Vienna. The next decade of his life would read like an architectural thriller: Harry studied in England during the war until he was sent to an internment camp in Quebec.

Patio of the Rose Seidler House: Wahroonga, Australia

After the war he studied design at Harvard under Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus School. Before reuniting with his family in Australia, Harry spent time in Brazil with Oscar Neimeyer, a modernist architect who was settling into his illustrious career. Neimeyer’s influence can be seen in the mural Harry incorporated on the deck of his parent’s house.

In post-war Australia it had been anything but easy to construct his ideal house. Many building materials were almost impossible to attain. “I remember going around in the car, my mother’s car, to try and get a few bricks for this fireplace. No bricks were available and you begged somebody for six bricks from this yard [and] another eight from another one”.

Interior of the Rose Seidler House: Wahroonga, Australia

When completed in 1950, the Rose Seidler House was ‘the most talked about house in Sydney’. The kitchen was, “one of Australia’s best equipped, with a waste disposal unit and the very latest model refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, exhaust fan and Mixmaster.”

The idea had been to stay in Australia long enough to build his parent’s home, however Harry had not anticipated the amount of attention nor the amount of commissions the Rose Seidler House would generate. Suburbanites were knocked off their feet- they’d never seen a house with an open floor plan, floor-to-ceiling windows, and on top of that it didn’t even face the street!

If you know where to look, you will see Seidler’s influence all over Sydney. I didn’t realize it until browsing through a book of his projects, but I’ve worked on the 47th floor of his octagonal skyscraper on Martin Place. At the time of completion the MLC Centre was the tallest building in Australia and the tallest outside of North America. Some might consider it the pinnacle of his achievements, but perhaps his true masterpiece was much humbler.

Master bedroom inside the Rose Seidler House: Wahroonga, Australia

In a eulogy given at Harry Seidler’s memorial service, the former director Sydney Living Museums hit the nail on the head: “Rose Seidler House meant a huge amount to Harry and I don’t think it was just because it launched his career in Australia. Although he never said so, I always felt that it represented something very deep for him.”

How to get to the Rose Seidler House: 71 Clissold Road, Wahroonga, NSW 2076 (only open Sundays)

Barret Dreams of Electric Spiders: Week 158

'Barret Dreams of Electric Spiders' by Barret Thomson

“I’m going to sleep on the couch.” Barret declared Tuesday night after brushing his teeth.

“Are you worried about giving me your rash?”

“No, I think there’s a poisonous spider in the bed.”

“Ok…” I wasn’t sure where he was going with this but it made me feel responsible, like I had negligently let my pet poisonous spider share the bed with us.

“So,”Barret continued, “I’m just going to take the couch tonight.”

“Should I also not sleep on the bed?”

“No.”

“No?”

“No, you’re fine on the bed.”

“I’m fine on the bed but you’re not because of poisonous spiders?”

“Yes,” Barret paused. “They didn’t bite you.”

I couldn’t really understand the rationale but I pointed out that he looked perfectly healthy.

“It might take a few days to kick in.”

“That was Sunday.” I counted back on my fingers. “I don’t think it would be a very effective survival technique if the spider’s poison took three days to activate.”

Barret apparently didn’t agree with me. He found a black and white checkered blanket and placed a pillow at the end of the short red couch. While he did this I swept my hand across the sheets and shook out the comforter and pillows.

“I don’t see any spiders.”

“I think we should wash those sheets again.”

“We just washed them,” I reminded him. “Are you sure you want to sleep on the couch? It’s not comfortable.”

“Yes. I just want to see what happens.”

“What will happen is a crick in your neck. Remember that time you were cutting those hedges and you had to wear a mask because you couldn’t stop sneezing? I think you are just having an allergic reaction from working out on the grass in the park.”

I thought the matter was settled, but two days later Barret’s body was completely covered in small red dots and his lymph nodes were popping out of his neck like gumballs. He left work early and found a doctor who agreed that it was indeed caused by a bite on the back of his earlobe.

“Does the doctor know what it was?” I asked.

“No.”

“Well, I bite your ear. Are you allergic to me?”

“Possibly.”

“Hey, you know what? For a rash, your skin has a nice reptilian texture. At least it’s not scabby or leaking pus.”

“Thanks. I feel better now.”

“Yeah,” I replied, “No worries.”

While Barret’s rash spread between his toes, so too did viral videos reminding uninsured US citizens to sign up for Obamacare before the March 31st deadline. Considering Barret’s out-of-pocket doctor visit, I looked up our Australian health care plan while the sheets tumbled once again in the washing machine downstairs. Barret popped a few anti-histamines and looked miserable lounging on the couch.

We were on the most basic plan to cover our visa requirements and I realized that for only $10 more a week, our plan could cover outpatient visits. That was a pretty big oversight on both our parts, so I guess the silver lining to Barret’s awesome rash was that it caused us to pay more attention to health insurance. We immediately emailed the provider to upgrade our plan.

Now I just had to convince Barret that the bed wasn’t a spider breeding ground.

About: the artwork of Barret Thomson

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