26 March 2003

Archibald 2003: Brush of the bushman

Geoffrey Dyer, Richard Flanagan,
oil on linen, 183 x 152.5 cm
The Archibald Prize went left field this year. Michael Hutak talks to the knockabout bloke from Tasmania who eclipsed a star-studded field. 

It was all a bit subdued at this year's announcement of Australia's pre-eminent art prize, the Archibald. For a start, convivial director Edmund Capon – who'd briefly become a NSW election issue when he took down the Australian flag from the Art Gallery of NSW in protest at the looming war – had been seemingly banished to a corner of the room instead of taking pride of place as MC on the podium.

Capon's void was filled by the earnest monotone of David Gonski, president of the AGNSW board of trustees, although we were assured the flag incident had nothing to do with Capon's "banishment". War, declared the day before, had quelled the media's customary boisterousness and Gonski's declaration of each winner – there are four in all, including the Wynn, the Sulman and a new photo-portrait prize – was greeted with dispersed gasps and muted applause followed by an exchange of polite but quizzical glances around the room: "Who?"

No darlings of the social set got the nod this year, nor did reclusive genii, enfants terrible or even idiots savant.

Instead Geoffrey Dyer, a knockabout, 55-year-old landscape painter, hard-drinking to boot, won for his rather scary portrait of fellow Tasmanian, novelist Richard Flanagan. Mounting the podium to rather sheepishly claim the $35,000 prize, Dyer was modest and regional: "Richard Flanagan is a friend and likes his footy, as I do. We drink at the same pub in Hobart – the Republic Hotel. Gould's Book of Fish [Flanagan's recent, best-selling novel] is considered a work of genius by the leading New York critic whose name I do not know."

Dyer noted that the last Tasmanian to win the prize was Jack Carrington Smith who in 1963 painted the then-chair of the University of Tasmania, Professor James McCauley. Clearly not one of the more controversial winners, but a Tasmanian nevertheless.

"Here in 2003," concluded Dyer, "I've been lucky enough to paint a great author, and become the second Tasmanian to win an Archibald prize. Thank you."

Afterwards he was asked, why Flanagan? "There was no one else at the end of the day. And while I don't doubt the talent in Tasmania, there's something about this bloke. I think this bloke's a bloody genius." Flanagan, on a promotional tour of Slovenia for Gould's, sent his best wishes: "Having made use of Mr Dyer as inspiration for the character of the painter Billy Gould in my novel Gould's Book of Fish, I felt it churlish not to sit for him when he asked. His success in painting a portrait far more fetching than its subject deserves only the highest accolades."

Referring to the novel, Dyer said that "just as Gould became a fish, I wanted to present Richard in a state of transmogrification." On his own terms, he succeeds. The winning work is an imposing, violent presence, its subject bearing a strong resemblance to the Incredible Hulk about to "transmogrify" (there can be no other word) into beast. And his hands look like they've been mangled in a grinder.

"The hands?" Dyer returns. "Well, he's a writer who's dirtied his hands delving into a tortured past. This isn't a man of elegance whose writing sits on the surface. This is a man who's got his hands in the grime and dirt."

Clearly, a safer choice for the trustees would have been 2001 winner Nicholas Harding's benevolent Margaret Whitlam. Or 12-time entrant Jenny Sages' uninspiring snapshot of Helen Garner. Or even Ian Smith's disturbing vision of his dealer Ray Hughes hanging out in Picasso's Paris.

In the end, the trustees got it right in that the Dyer was the driest choice in a field dripping wet with banality and which contained no real standout picture. Perhaps this was due to the onanistic trend for artists to paint themselves, their colleagues, dealers or benefactors. Of the 32 works hung from more than 500 entries, more than half were in this club.

Dyer, whose entry last year of the then last-surviving ANZAC, Alec Campbell, was one of the favourites, has entered the Archibald 10 times and has been hung each of the last seven years – an achievement in itself. "That's a 70% rate isn't it? Maybe it was my time," he told The Bulletin, whose founding editor, J.F. Archibald, made the prize possible with a generous bequest.

The Archibald, first awarded in 1921, has been won by just about every significant Australian artist since. Last year 170,000 people in Sydney and Melbourne viewed the exhibition and about 62,000 voted in the People's Choice Award.

Yet, after the presentation, the winner was reassuringly down-to-earth. "You don't hang your whole career on an Archibald Prize. This is one painting among many, and if it helps me along the way, then that's fantastic. What will I do with the money? I'm going to Randwick tomorrow!"

Dyer is first and foremost a landscape painter, and has been hung in the Wynne prize for landscape and figure sculpture eight times. He shows with Despard Gallery in Hobart, Nadine Wagner in Sydney (which will mount a landscape show next week) and Axia in Melbourne, where his next one-man show is scheduled for May. He was reluctant to talk prices, but his dealer, Matthew Stafford from Axia, said Dyer's landscapes range from $6000 to $20,000.

Dyer studied at the Hobart School of Art in the "middle '60s". "I taught for 11 years. It helped kick me off. I resigned in 1979 to paint full time. So it's, what? Twenty-three years surviving as a painter."

This year, the so-called minor prizes offer more nourishment and stimulation. Tim Kyle's oversized sculpture, Seated Figure – an imposing, undeniable vision of a troubled ogre – won the Wynne. The Sulman prize for subject painting, genre painting or mural project – in other words, anything goes – is a wonderful potpourri of this and that. But its prize went to one of the least inspiring works, Eric Smith's Reflection, an abstract painting that appears to reflect precious little.

In an age dominated by technology, it was only a matter of time before the AGNSW recognised the stature that photography has in our culture, not to mention its recent rise in popularity as an art form in its own right.

This year, a new Australian Photographic Portrait Prize was established "to promote contemporary portrait photography in all forms of still photo-based art". This wide brief cannily marries the established photographic genre of the portrait with the new and innovative approaches available in a digital age. Compelling images in the form of photograms, digital prints, snapshots, computer-generated and enhanced images are to be found in the 50 entries chosen to be hung.

Alas, the winner, Greg Weight's portrait of blues musician Jim Conway, while engaging enough, was one of the least "innovative" works. Your correspondent's choice, Justene Williams' attractive portrait of her partner Tony Schwenson donning a balaclava, is hung prominently as you enter the exhibition.

What do you think?

First published in The Bulletin

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