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Reviews/Visual Art

Lester finalists are relatable, dynamic and charismatic

19 October 2021

WA’s prestigious annual portrait prize exhibition celebrates both the individuality and universality of human nature, finds Kim Kirkman.

The Lester Prize 2021, various artists ·
The Art Gallery of Western Australia ·

Tender, cathartic and incisive, the 15th annual Lester Prize explores themes of isolation, homage and self-examination, reflecting the current state of our world and the people in it through a series of portraits from across the country.

A painting of a woman on a train. Only part of her head is visible in the frame but we can see her full face in the window's reflection as well as the man sitting next to her.
Desiree Crossing ‘The night commute’ 2021. Oil on canvas, 98 x 78 cm.

Curated by the Art Gallery of WA’s Isobel Wise, the 2021 exhibition includes 40 finalists selected from more than 750 entries, by judging panel Tom Muller, Emilia Galatis, Helen Turner, Jim Cathcart and Isobel Wise.

Self-examination in a time of isolation is a fitting theme, and 15 of the artworks are self-portraits, including Jordan Androetta’s Reflection, painted using just four colours. There is something stark and lonely in the subject’s pebble-smooth face and the crisp lines of his white shirt. The artist is influenced by Edward Hopper, and in a likeness to the American realist painter’s style, the odd green hue of this work evokes strangeness in a familiar setting.

Another self-portrait, Desiree Crossing’s The Night Commute, explores the “long dark commute home” in an accomplished exploration of movement, colour and reflection. The artist’s meditation on being a woman alone at night crafts an atmosphere at once urban and eerie, humdrum and tense through the use of light, sense of proximity, and the depth of expression on the subject’s face.

A painting of Mark McGowan, sitting at his desk, with his face resting on one hand. The other hand holds an ipad with a picture of a mug with his face on it and the word #statedaddy.
Jenny Davies ‘#statedaddy’ 2021. Oil on canvas, 117 x 87 cm.

On one wall Wise has collected portraits depicting iconic and accomplished Australians. Susan Alberti AC, Eric Robert Pearce and Margot McKinney gaze out from this section, twinkly and appraising. A painting of Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan by Jenny Davies, #statedaddy, seems unguarded and amused. The portrait shows McGowan grinning warmly up at the viewer from behind his desk, evoking the affection lavished upon a politician currently cresting a wave of wild popularity.

In Anne of a thousand earrings – a portrait of Anne Schofield AM, Evert Ploeg’s Anne bedecks herself in antique jewellery before a mirror, in oil on linen. The portrait is ornate and lustrous, but also intimate, offering a rich expression of a woman in a personal moment.

One of the more personal portraits, and winner of the Judges’ Highly Commended, Narelle Zeller’s Brave new worker finds joy in the odd state of our current, COVID-19-impacted world. The portrait beams with a sense of the relationship between the painter and the sitter, and crafts a familiar, relatable scene finding lightness in locked down-life. Zeller’s husband, set against a formal portraiture-style drape, stands washed in light; rumpled pyjamas and ugg-boots on beneath a shirt and tie as he prepares for that morning’s Zoom call, his dog gazing adoringly up at him from the floor.

A blue ink drawing of a woman who is making a dumpling. Only her head, neck, wrists and hands are depicted; white space implies her top.
Emily Song, ‘饺子 (dumplings)’ 2021. Ballpoint pen on paper, 69 x 54 cm.

The Richard Lester Prize for Portraiture was won by street artist Sidney Tapia for Through You (pictured top), a small painting of Siaosi Feiloakitau; a man the artist met asking for spare change on the streets of Sydney. The seamlessly crafted portrait, which also won the Barton Family Foundation Installers’ Prize, offers a softness about the subject, a sense of his stillness on a bustling street.

Emily Song’s dumplings took out the Tony Fini Foundation Artist Prize and the Minderoo Foundation Spirit Prize. This stunning work was created entirely in ballpoint pen on paper, masterfully fine lines forming the subject’s sleek hair and the flour on her fingers and creating shade and tone against the blank white of the paper.

In its curation of the relatable, dynamic and charismatic in portraiture, The Lester Prize celebrates both human distinctiveness and universality, holding to the light aspects of the relationships the painters have with their sitters, and the kinds of connections we as audiences have with them too.

The 2021 Lester Prize is touring to The Studio Gallery in Yallingup, 19 March – 10 April 2022.

The Lester Prize continues at the Art Gallery of Western Australia until 29 November 2021.

Pictured top: Sidney Tapia ‘Through you’ 2020. Oil on wooden board, 22 x 22 cm.

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Author —
Kim Kirkman

Kim Kirkman studied journalism and community development, and has worked across the state as a reporter and story gatherer. She loves food and fiction writing and hearing other people’s stories. Always up for a challenge, the monkey bars are her favourite part of the playground.

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