Who doesn’t love the Archibald Prize? Every year it comes around with a fresh set of forty-odd faces to enliven our mid-winter musings. When I was working on the ABC TV’s arts program ‘Review’ in the early ‘90s, we’d always cover it in great detail. And we were all over it as producers for Radio National’s show ‘Arts Today’ too, because audiences all over Australia simply adore it.
It’s an opportunity to examine more closely those public figures whose reputations precede them, to delve down into their psyches. We like to think we know these people pretty well – after all, the glossy magazines tell us all about them in graphic, sensational detail. And we crave to see them through the eyes of an artist to take us just a little bit deeper. We want to see what new insights will be revealed in those oily brushstrokes on canvas. What intimate yearnings lurk beneath the famous masks? What chinks in the armour will be exposed for all to see?
Ultimately, we want to connect with them. We want to see in them, ourselves in all our vulnerable humanity. We also want to gauge the zeitgeist of the art world. Which style of painting will capture the vote of the trustees and take out the $100,000 prize money? What’s hot and what’s not.
Lately I’ve been working a lot with communities around the country to protect our land and water from coal and gas development, and one of the people who has stepped up to support the campaign is Michael Caton. He, of course, is the subject of Bruno Jean Grasswill’s portrait, which won the Packer’s Choice the other day. This win is a wonderful endorsement of Michael’s charm and popularity. He is the Aussie everyman, as encapsulated in that classic Aussie film ‘The Castle’.
But that portrait won’t win the main prize. It’s said that the winner is always hung in the central gallery space of the exhibition and this year, true to form, that chamber housed by Nigel Milsom’s dark and wild portrait of his barrister Charlie Waterstreet, the man who inspired the loveable television character ‘Rake’, and the winner of the 2015 Prize.
I was hung, as a subject, in the Archie, back in 2009. It was a big portrait (2 x 1m) by the fabulous Queensland artist Abbey McCulloch. Abbey had been previously chosen in 2007 for her portrait of Toni Collette, which I’d loved for its simple lines and mutable touch. So when Abbey contacted me through her gallery to see if I’d be interested in sitting for her, of course I agreed. It’s an honour to be asked by an artist to sit for them and you can’t help but wonder, what secrets, in you they’ll unearth. And will you be able to accept them?
Abbe was living in the beachside suburb of Burleigh Heads and had been a huge fan of the film I starred in when I was 17 called ‘Puberty Blues’. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s about two teenage girls who strive to get into the cool surfie gang but once there, find it’s not all its cracked up to be so they finally bust out and go their own way with some considerable flair. In the end it’s a really empowering feminist movie and because Abbey likes to explore what it means to be female in contemporary society, she connected with it. She also wanted to see what sort of woman I’d grown in to over the decades and if there was any of that teen spirit still burning inside.
So we made a date. I was going up to the Gold Coast to report on the IF awards for the subscription television channel Showtime and we set aside some time for her to examine me, first with her camera and then with her sketch pad.
Some months later she sent me a photo of the finished product and I was rather startled to discover that I had been interpreted in a most mysterious oceanic shade of blue. Maybe it was a reference to that old film? I’d painted my nails gold, in honour of the Gold Coast and the portrait featured these nails on fingers touching my chin inquisitively. I think I was probably checking her out as much as she was me.
It was an absolute thrill when we heard it had made the incredibly competitive cut. I was at the opening night and my old buddy Baz Luhrmann came up to me and said how much he loved it. He said, “At first I thought it was Jackie Onasis.” Quite a compliment from the old showman.
Holly Bennett wrote an interesting article for the art gallery’s blog about synaesthesia, a condition of ‘joined’ sensations, in which she used the portrait as a spring board. I mention it because it features again in the current edition of Look magazine, the art gallery’s periodical, and I’ll read the opening paragraph for you:
“I was walking through the Archibald exhibition several years ago when I was struck by how perfectly one of the paintings had captured the colours and textures of Wednesday. It was Abbey McCulloch’s portrait of Nell Schofield – watery blues and tinges of yellow, edged with translucent pink; both drowning and glowing. Melancholy and refreshing at the same time, it was Wednesday, both the word itself and the personality that the weekday had in my head. I visited that painting a lot in my lunch breaks, basking in the glorious feeling that a little piece of the universe had clicked into place for a while.”
Isn’t that what we all crave from art? That connection to a bigger picture.
Perhaps it was that Wednesday feeling, that balance of melancholia and refreshment, that connected so strongly with people. It was certainly singled out several times in the media. The exhibition of finalists later toured to Melbourne and I remember turning a corner one day when I was down there and seeing a massive blow up of my blue head plastered over the Myer shop window. It was a surreal moment.
When it had done the rounds, Abbey McCulloch amazingly gave me the portrait. It was a remarkable gesture of generosity but living with it was not as easy as it might sound. Those big blue eyes following me around the house, assessing my every move. At one stage I put a scarf over it so I wouldn’t have to be confronted all the time. Now it hangs above my bed where I don’t have to see it so often and I’ve grown to love it. It’s fluid, mutable, beautiful.
It’s since been hung in a show of surf related art called ‘The Green Cathedral’ at the Wollongong Regional Gallery and Abbe’s star keep rising with her portrait of Naomi Watts an Archie finalist in 2013.
When I got the chance to curate an exhibition of my own at the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery in 2010, I commissioned Abbe to paint a portrait. The exhibition was called ‘Wax On’, and featured of Pam Burridge, Australia’s champion woman surfer of the ‘80s. It wasn’t so pretty. Her depiction of Pam was of a woman who wasn’t so comfortable being probed by a painter, and Pam hated it. For me it had guts, the bold brushstrokes conveying the big wave surfer that she was.
I was painted again last year by Evert Ploeg, who won the People’s Choice award in 1999 for his luscious portrait of actress Deborah Mailman. He wanted to paint me with my two twin sisters, Emma and Tess, as the three graces. I did a bit of research and found a litany of paintings of nude nymphs galavanting around. I was up for getting my gear off but my sisters weren’t. So the finished work has me, brazen as all get out, tits to the wind, and my sisters modestly draped. It’s a great work of art, maybe a bit too confronting for the Archibald, as it wasn’t hung, but it did make it into the Doug Moran Prize for Portraiture where my breasts have been examined by the masses.
As long as they’re not caught in a fire or otherwise damaged, these paintings will still be around long after I’m gone, to gaze out at passers-by and tell the tale of my existence. As Evert says: “We leave a lasting imprint of our existence to others through a recognition of our face.”