“A portrait,” noted British writer Charles Morgan in his 1929 novel Portrait in a mirror“should be the image of one spirit conceived in another’s mirror.” In one of the more than one hundred works of art that comprise the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ national touring exhibition Archie 100: A Century of Archibald Prize, Morgan’s words are reminiscent of a self-portrait by Peter Tyndall, painted while the Victorian artist was looking into a circular mirror. One eye closed, the other on the artist’s own reflection – and thus on us. Tyndall’s portrait invites reflection on questions relevant to the exhibition as a whole, most notably: What is the nature of the gaze in the complex, tripartite exchanges between painters in portraiture? , subject and viewer?
The Archibald occupies a prominent place in Australian culture. The award was established in 1921 by journalist and publisher JF Archibald for “the best portrait, preferably of a man or woman, of distinguished artistic, literary, scientific or political character, painted by an Australian-based artist”. and is one of the few occasions each year that the arts make it into the national conversation. Undoubtedly, at a time when the cult of celebrity – a term that actually serves as one of 11 subjects under which the portraits are grouped here – is more pervasive than ever, much of our fascination with Archibald lies in his depictions of the Recognized and recognizable.
One of the more interesting aspects of Archi 100presented by the Art Gallery of South Australia in a double exhibition Robert Wilson: Moving Portraits, its historical sweep is how a retrospective of this kind can add up to more than the sum of its parts, weaving discrete moments in time into something of a narrative of social, political, and aesthetic change. For example, in a gallery themed “In Polite Conversation,” Bryan Westwood’s photorealistic portrait of Paul Keating in a signature Italian suit collides The Honorable John Howard, MP (1979), the future Prime Minister, portrayed by his then-neighbor Josonia Palaitis as a suburban swank in shorts, a gaudy shirt, and sandals (“relaxed and comfortable”). Here, as throughout the exhibition, I was less interested in the sometimes crippling mimesis of portraiture and more interested in reflecting on what AGSA director Rhana Devenport called the “intertwining of trust” between sitter and artist in her opening speech.
While not acknowledging JF Archibald’s xenophobia and his support for the White Australia Policy, Archi 100 admirably draws attention to the Indigenous artists of the award – including Vincent Namatjira, the first Indigenous artist to receive this honor – and the historically limited role of women in it. Only a third of Archibald’s entrants were women, and of those, only 10 have ever won the prize, which is worth $100,000 today. Throughout the exhibition, and particularly the gallery’s theme of ‘Recasting the Gaze’, women’s contributions to Archibald are given a corrective gloss, highlighting the work of, for example, Nora Heysen, the first woman to win the award and also Australia’s first woman official martial artists.
Robert Wilsons Moving Portraits is, albeit in a markedly different way, a similarly high-profile affair. In a series of high-resolution, large-format “video portraits” by the renowned American theater director and visual artist, celebrities such as Sean Penn, Brad Pitt and burlesque star Dita Von Teese appear in elaborately staged, often classically inspired tableaux. The images are not photographs, but repetitive videos, in which the kinesis of film and theater is reduced to an almost imperceptible movement – the rise and fall of a breast, the subtle wobbling of a body striking a difficult pose for a seemingly endless length from time. They reminded me less of what Susan Sontag called photography’s ability to cut out and freeze a moment and more of Andrei Tarkovsky’s famous description of filmmaking as “sculpting in time”.
On two portraits Miss Caroline (2013) and death of Marat (2013), actress and pop star Lady Gaga appears as the subject of paintings by French Neoclassical artists Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Jacques-Louis David, respectively. A sort of visual equivalent of lip-synching, the clash of sophisticated and unassuming inherent in portraits like these has something winning camp in their irreverently lofty style and meticulous construction.
Cleverly presented alongside a work from the AGSA Collection – Christian Waller’s triptych of lead-light windows, Prophet Isaiah, Apostle St. Peter, Sundar Singh (1936) – Robert Downey Jr., actor (2004) casts the actor as the central character in a tribute to Rembrandt The anatomy lesson by Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632). Set in the sickly green light of a primitive operating room, Downey Jr.’s left arm – a prosthetic – is operated on by a black-clad doctor, cruelly baring the arm muscles. Growling from a nearby loudspeaker, Tom Waits extends the portrait’s Jacobean atmosphere into the realm of the acoustic. Although I could barely make them out in the hustle and bustle of the gallery, each of the portraits is accompanied by an individual soundtrack, sometimes with spoken text and often by the late American composer and violinist Michael Galasso.
Other portraits are more playful. In the hyperreal Isabella Rossellini, actress (2005) Rossellini appears as the Japanese manga character Sailor Moon with a bright yellow wig, bright red tights and white make-up. Sprawled out on a designer stool, the background divided into garish blues and greens, Rossellini is not motionless, but rather seems to be leaping forward to the beat in small, frenzied steps, limbs twitching unnaturally like something out of a horror film.
Elsewhere, Wilson’s love of the theater emerges in his portrayal of Winona Ryder as the unusually youthful Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (1961), buried up to his neck in a heap of earth. A revolver spilled from her purse is illuminated by a spotlight and glows almost invitingly, a nod to another mainstay of theater, the dramatic principle known as Chekhov’s weapon. I was fascinated by the scope for interpretation that such narrative gestures and a kind of weird dramaturgy open up.
More compelling than Wilson’s human subjects is the series of animal portraits grouped under the Sacred Covenant theme. Animals depicted include snowy owls, a porcupine, a black panther and, perhaps most strikingly, a moose. In the latter portrait, apparently inspired by Wilson’s traumatic childhood experience of hunting deer with his father in Texas, the animal emerges from a cloud of fog, its antlers fanning out and taking up most of the screen like eerily elongated human hands . There is something deeply revealing about these animal portraits, the way their gaze shakes notions of subjectivity and what constitutes a sentient mind. “The beast looks at us,” as Derrida put it, “and we are naked before it. Thinking may start here.”
Robert Wilson: Moving Portraits and Archi 100 will be on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia until October 3rd.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2022 as “Mirror of the Mind.”
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