Changed-up Archibald gives visitors pause for thought

Australians can be creatures of habit and some visitors to this year’s Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes at the Art Gallery of NSW seem disoriented when directed through the latter two to reach the main event.

Soon enough (if they don’t find the shortcut to the portraits), they come across the Archibald winner.

The subject is artist and Zen Buddhist Lindy Lee, painted by Sydney artist Tony Costa floating cross-legged in a meditative state. Lee’s green rakusu draws the eye from her face and into the triangular composition formed by dark robes.

Opening weekend crowd at the NSW Art Gallery viewing the Archibald Prize finalists and winner. Credit:Dean Sewell

The background is the quiet star of the work, its softly layered peach, green and apricot tones reverberating around Lee’s figure, contrasting with the more heavily painted face and hands. It is a portrait of meditation as much as of Lee herself, though Lee is unmistakable with her signature half-bob, half-long hairstyle.

John Beard’s image of Edmund Capon hangs in a nearby corner – it is fitting the late gallery director has a presence. Next to it is Benjamin Aitken’s commanding portrait of 2014 Archibald winner Fiona Lowry, larger than life yet emotionally restrained.

This year’s choice for Packing Room Prize fits the usual traits of being realistically painted (in this case hyper-realistically) and of a recognisable celebrity. Tessa MacKay’s portrait of a pensive David Wenham through the window of a Sydney café dominates the room where many other works depict strong women.

Tessa MacKay poses with her Packing Room prize portrait of David Wenham.Credit:James Alcock

Jordan Richardson has a playfully serious take on Annabel Crabb; Jonathon Dalton executes a matriarchal family portrait in Sally. And her boys.; Kendal Gear’s self-portrait in the bathroom mirror finds vulnerability in an everyday moment; and Luke Cornish depicts Sue Cato in slick sophistication as an excuse to paint her fluffy pet dogs.

But there is something to be said for taking the scenic route to the Archibald. Few artists exclusively paint portraiture; many find their preferred style within landscape and genre categories.

The entrance to the Sulman is grouped thematically, giving a cross-section of Australian painting. This year’s judge, Fiona Lowry, was driven by the love artists express through their work and has chosen an earnestly symbolic portrait by McLean Edwards.

The winner of the 2019 Archibald Prize, Tony Costa, was attracted by Lindy Lee’s wisdom, humility, courage, humour and deep focus on her art.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Indigenous artists continue to dominate the Wynne, suggesting our understanding of Australian landscape is evolving – Sylvia Ken’s resonant work Seven Sisters is a deserving winner. Meanwhile, Abdul Abdullah’s work A Terrible Burden takes a gentle jab at John Olsen.

Inverting the prizes is a reminder that art is about how we view the world – even if ultimately what many of us most want to see is a famous face.

Chloe Wolifson is an arts writer, researcher and curator based in Sydney.

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