16 April 2012

The Archibald Prize. Art Gallery of N.S.W.

David Reyne. 

How often have you stood in an art gallery staring quizzically at the framed, lurid pink squiggle on the wall and thought to yourself, “hell, I could’ve done that”?
Perhaps you’ve even bolted home, stopping off at the newsagent on the way for a roll of cardboard, and a paint brush or two, convinced that you could slosh a bit of watercolour about and get the million dollar cheque the galleries are paying for similar kinds of work.

A couple of hours spent in the Art Gallery of New South Wales might get you to reconsider.

A walk through Sydney’s beautiful Domain with its winding footpaths, copious lush gardens and gently sloping lawns gives the feeling of wandering through a masterpiece, particularly as you rise the crest leading to the Gallery to be confronted by its classic sandstone fa├žade. If it weren’t for glimpses of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House over your shoulder, you’d almost believe you’d stumbled upon Athens or Rome, such is the style and grandeur of the Gallery’s ostentatious entrance of Ionic columns and Neo Classical portico.

It’s a daunting welcome to any kind of building but given this holds one of the country’s finest collections of art, you can’t help but think you’re about to discover walls heaving with heavily framed brushwork by humourless masters depicting depressing scenes of bloody historic battles and grim faced angels attempting to part gloomy skies to clear way the way to heaven for emaciated, twisted corpses. And, believe me, there are those kinds of works.

They’re not the reason why I visited, however. I came for the Archibald Prize exhibition which runs until the 3rd of June 2012.

Once inside, I headed downstairs and was immediately taken by the magnificence of the assembled work; bold, colourful, modern. Sometimes amusing and sometimes stark.

Each of the 41 finalists in 2012’s Archibald are here. Each portrait has an accompanying plaque explaining the work and a brief history of the artist responsible, but it’s the undoubted skill that stops me in my tracks. There’s such a joyous energy present. Some works are incredibly audacious with the paint looking as if it’s been flung at the canvas from a distance, while others seem almost photographic, such is the extraordinary detail involved.

Not once do I find myself thinking I’d easily knock one of these up at home. Quite the contrary. I find myself up close, marveling at the brushwork, amazed by the piling on of layers and textures, wondering how, when viewed from only inches away, some look nothing like they do when viewed again from the middle of the room.

And then I started questioning the judges’ decision. How on earth could one be deemed ‘better’ than the other? Indeed, how on earth were one or two even regarded as being worthy to hang at all?

I eventually realise I’ve spent three hours staring at works of art without even noticing the passing of time. It also dawns on me that, sadly, my attempts at sloshing a bit of watercolour upon a bit of cardboard is, exactly that - sloshing.

We’re all aware of the splendour of Sydney Harbour and its surrounds. It’s one of the most beautiful harbours in the world but never would I have thought I’d go specifically to head indoors… to look at ‘pictures’. I’m glad I did. 

To learn about the exhibition click here

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