2016 Archibald Prize “impossible to second guess”
More often than not, there is clear a favourite portrait to win the Archibald Prize, but this year’s finalists have left experts guessing, including the curator of the Archibald Prize exhibition, Natalie Wilson, who says the competition is “impossible to second guess”.
Awarded annually, the Archibald has become one of our nation’s most prestigious art awards and compared to the Melbourne Cup in terms of it being “the art prize that stops a nation”. Over its 95 years, it has presented a who’s who of Australian culture, with entries required to depict distinguished national figures; from politicians to celebrities, sporting stars and artists.
Nigel Milsom’s arresting oil painting of barrister Charles Waterstreet was the bookies’ choice from the outset last year and surprised nobody when it was announced the winner. Waterstreet is a generous donator to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and a much loved Sydney personality. These traits are also true of the 2014 Archibald Prize winning sitter Penelope Seidler.
2015 Archibald Prize winner: Judo house pt 6 (the white bird) by Nigel Milsom Source: Art Gallery of New South Wales
So if there is a relationship between the painting’s sitter and the likelihood of winning, Natasha Bieniek’s unusually small and brilliant portrait of Wendy Whiteley is in with a good chance, as Whiteley is well known in Sydney and a patron of the gallery. “I first met Wendy last year at a dinner held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales,” admits Bieniek.
Placement of portraits is also revealing, with the central gallery space, where you will find Whiteley waiting for you, likely to feature the winning painting. Perhaps it really is about who you know, or rather who you paint.
Wendy Whiteley by Natasha Bieniek Source: Art Gallery of NSW
Although Bieniek’s painting has attracted hundreds of votes from Fairfax Media readers on their online poll, it is by nowhere near the favourite with the voting public. Currently leading the pack is Kirsty Neilson’s There’s No Humour in Darkness, a portrait of the Australian actor and comedian Garry McDonald. “I first saw Garry on Australian Story last year and knew immediately that I wanted to paint him,” says Neilson. “Garry suffers from major anxiety and depression, which led to a nervous breakdown. I personally suffered from major anxiety growing up, particularly performance anxiety as I was a pianist, among other things. We share traits of perfectionism and self-criticism, which comes with the territory of being creative.”
There’s no humour in darkness by Kirsty Neilson Source: Art Gallery of New South Wales
The other painting winning over the public is Nick Stathopoulos’ hyper-realistic portrait of refugee lawyer Deng Adut. Adut came to the attention of the artist, and nation, thanks to a moving advertisement for Western Sydney University showing his incredible life story, starting with his years as a child soldier, and finishing with him now as a strong community leader and refugee advocate.
Western Sydney University’s advert featuring Deng Adut
Although Adut is an incredibly busy man, he agreed to sit for Stathopoulos as he painted. “You really need to have the subject there in front of you to capture that life-spark and commanding presence. Those eyes, those scars, tell a story that no ad could ever convey,” says the artist.
Deng by Nick Stathopoulos Source: Art Gallery of New South Wales
Bluethumb artist Kim Leutwyler, one of last year’s Archibald Prize finalists, thinks 2016’s exhibition is a great selection. “I had no luck this year, but fortunately a lot of my favourite artists made it in to the Archie,” exclaims Leutwyler. “My absolute favourites have got to be Natasha Bieniek, Marc Etherington, Abdul Abdullah and Juan Ford. I connect with each of them on both a personal and professional level and think their portraits speak for themselves. It also helps that they are all fantastic human beings.”
One of Leutwyler’s favourites: King Ken (Ken Done in his studio) by Marc Etherington Source: Art Gallery of New South Wales
When the finalists were announced, Betina Fauvel-Ogden was awarded the Packing Room Prize with her painting of renowned chef, restaurateur and MasterChef Australia judge, George Calombaris. The Packing Room Prize – a cash prize of $1500 – is awarded to the best entry in the Archibald Prize as judged by the gallery staff who receive, unpack and hang the entries. Although a sweet accolade, the Packing Room Prize winner has never gone on to win the Archibald so is seen as a kiss of death by some.
Packing Room Prize winner: George Calombaris, masterchef by Betina Fauvel-Ogden Source: Art Gallery of New South Wales
Still none the wiser on who the most likely winner will be, we managed to catch the curator of the Archibald Prize exhibition, Natalie Wilson, during this incredibly busy week to see if she had any insights. “There are many worthy works and it’s impossible to second guess the Trustees’ selection,” says Wilson.
Does she have a personal favourite? “I’m in admiration of all the artists who have entered this year’s Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes and the selection, as always, is a fascinating insight into the array of artistic expression we have in Australia today,” she replies, speaking like a true politician. Looks like we will just have to wait for the Trustees’ decision tomorrow.
The winners of the Archibald, Sulman and Wynne Prizes will be revealed on July 15.
Browse and buy paintings by last year’s Archiblad Prize finalist Kim Leutwyler.