Participating in this year’s Portia Geach Memorial Award at SH Ervin Gallery almost means being assaulted by Janne Kearneys There is a rainbow after every storm (Tilly Baker, musician). There’s nothing subtle about this portrait, and it sets the tone for a show that greets the end of Sydney’s lockdown with a loud cheer.
I do not know what kind of music Tilly Baker makes, but it’s probably not the ambient variant. When your dress, hair and glasses are in rainbow colors, it indicates volume. Kearney has added the same colors to the background should there be any ambiguity. It is no mystery why this image got the entrance to itself.
Portia Geach is Australia’s leading award for female portraits, resembling a version of the Archibald Award for Women Only. Like Archibald, it’s an inconsistent affair, but this year the standard is higher, probably because artists have been able to put more time and thought into their work during the lockdown. When it comes to visual arts, the pandemic has had its benefits.
The strong color continues in Joanna Braithwaites Aficionado, a portrait of the art writer Chloé Wolifson. The simplicity of the composition is offset by a bold color scheme showing Wolifson in a bright orange top against a turquoise background. I’m not quite sure if the goldfish bowl balanced casually on the subject’s head. Braithwaite sees it as “a thought bubble”, but few people would see “goldfish” and “thought” as a natural interconnection.
There is also a remarkable amount of color in Jo Bertini’s portrait of her mother, Anne Ferguson. The soft pinks, reds and yellows are surprising because the subject is gloomy. Anne suffers from dementia, with all the ravages it causes. Not long ago, she was a sculptor of some sort of distinction, but the disease has taken away her ability to work from her.
Bertini’s statements describe the discussions about art she still manages to have with her mother, which seem more valuable because they are moments of clarity torn from the penetrating fog. There is a desperate grief in Anne’s face, but the painting is brilliant, the warmth of the palette reflecting a daughter’s love for her mother. There is nothing else in the exhibition that is so heartfelt, so sincerely touching.
Could the judges be hard-hearted enough to award the prize elsewhere? Yup. This year’s first prize of $ 30,000 went to Marie Mansfield, for Tilly, a portrait of the artist Matilda Michell, who is also represented in the show with a painting by the wordsmith David Astle.
Mansfield has appeared in this exhibition on many occasions. Her perseverance has finally been rewarded for an image devoid of games or gimmicks showing Michell dressed in black jeans and T-shirt, clearly her work clothes. She sits on a stool, her legs spread out in front, her hands tucked behind her head. Mansfield says the position is “unloaded, open and natural at the moment”, but it is also full of physical excitement, as if the figure was strapped to a stand. This is the ambiguity of the studio, where artists at once gain energy and are tortured by their work.
It is a crisp, confident piece that does a lot with the most economical means. If a portrait is primarily a resemblance that gives us a sense of the sitter’s personality and character, Mansfield has solved that task with great skill.
If a portrait is a resemblance that gives us a sense of the sitter, Mansfield has accomplished this task with great skill.
John McDonald on Marie Mansfield’s winning portrait
There are 57 finalists this year, so if I only discuss a handful of paintings, it does not mean that the others are without interest. For those looking for a superior brand of realism, Tsering Hannaford’s portrait of farmer Jim Litchfield is stunning. This guy looks like he’s talking to you. It is the hands, the eyes and the mouth that give this image its spark of life.
Rachel Perrin’s portrait of this year’s Archibald award-winning artist, Peter Wegner, loses very little in comparison, though it’s worth considering whether the elaborate background adds or subtracts from the overall effect. Perrin even includes an element of poker work! It’s an invincible argument: whether the best portraits concentrate solely on the sitter, or whether background details are essential. Filippa Buttitta, for example, has pushed the boundaries in her portrait of artist Tony Costa. She has captured an excellent resemblance, but filled the canvas with too much distracting information.
Pam Tippett, known as a painter of still lifes, can be expected to include a few important objects in his portrait of Amanda Bell, former rector of Women’s College at Sydney University. A vase, a bunch of azaleas and an antique photo have been chosen to provide insight into the subject’s interests and achievements. Bell looks, to put it mildly, entertained beyond the process.
Deborah Walker has taken a more adventurous approach The Suitcase (autobiographical memory), a portrait of her stepdaughter Stephanie Griffin. It depicts a departure moment where every detail gets a mildly surreal twist. Griffin is barefoot. Her tears resound with large drops seeping down the wall. A dog and a menacing green shape (which may or may not be a tree) on the left side of the canvas act as incoherent presentations in the image. Instead of too much information, Walker withholds vital data and turns this “autobiographical memory” into a metaphysical puzzle.
Eventually two paintings that left me completely confused: Zoe Youngs The beauty of resilience, a portrait of Kylie Moore-Gilbert, the academic who escaped from prison in Iran; and Tianli Zu’s Dr. Gene, which must be the strangest vision of philanthropist Gene Sherman, who has ever committed to canvas.
I know Zoe thinks, in the style of Oscar Wilde, that it’s better to be noticed than not to be noticed, even if it’s not exactly a favorable notice. But it is unclear what she intended with this highly distorted image, in which Moore-Gilbert’s lower half appears disproportionately larger than the top, while her hands look like skeletal claws. It is as if the kelimen she is sitting on has exerted a malicious influence on the figure, making everything rough and choppy. The image remains awkwardly realistic, while half-heartedly flirting with a more expressive style.
As for Dr. Gene, Zu has made her motive look so scary that she could have stepped out of a Hammer Horror. The only thing missing is a set of fangs. The black dress, the off-white pallor, the dark glasses and the enveloping blackness give an alarmingly eerie impression. The stylized little dog on a complementary panel makes the portrait seem even more ritualistic. I do not know what is written on the piece of paper that Sherman has, but perhaps it is her proposal to turn the Powerhouse Museum into a fashion center – an idea that many see as really scary. One thing I can say with confidence is that Zu has shown us a side of Gene Sherman that we’ve never seen before, although I’m not sure this counts as success.
Portia Geach Memorial Award, SH Ervin Gallery, until 19 December.