Reviews/Visual Art

A well-deserved win for Belyea

1 December 2021

In an impressive field, it’s the confidence of experience that distinguishes Merrick Belyea’s work, writes Craig McKeough.

‘John Stringer Prize’, Merrick Belyea, Theo Costantino, Daniel Kristjansson, Clare McFarlane, Ross Potter and Lea Taylor ·
John Curtin Gallery ·

Showcasing the best of West Australian visual arts, the annual John Stringer Prize is, traditionally, an exhibition of spectacular diversity, thanks to its considered curation.

The 2021 version is no exception, offering up painting, drawing, sculpture, textiles and digital work by six artists, commissioned by a panel comprised of Chris Malcolm (John Curtin Gallery), Dr Laetitia Wilson (Janet Holmes à Court Collection) and Nathan Giles (Perth Public Art Foundation). There is no thematic relationship between the works; each artist is given the space to allow their art to tell its own story.

Established artist Merrick Belyea is a standout winner of the 2021 prize for his exceptional oil on board series, Brigadoon, which continues his long-held exploration of human interaction with our natural surroundings. These five 120cm by 90cm panels (three of which are pictured top) carry a sense of the breadth and depth of the landscape, with the forms and colours suggesting the familiar without being recognisable as a specific location. Belyea draws inspiration from his surroundings, in this case a semi-rural suburb in the Swan Valley, and wants to tell us something about it rather than simply showing us what it looks like.

A graphite image of a woman. She has short hair and freckled skin and gazes impassively at the viewer.
Ross Potter, ‘UNCONDITIONALLOVE’, 2021, graphite on paper, 120 x 140cm (42 square paper sheets 20 x 20cm each, Image courtesy of artist.

The Brigadoon series displays a confidence that comes with years of experience. Belyea takes Australian landscape traditions and adds his own twists and contortions, as he applies and destroys his painted surface, layering a limited range of colours and working back into them to produce vibrant, expressive compositions with a rich variety of exciting marks.

Fellow finalist Ross Potter has gained plenty of attention with his highly detailed drawings, often depicting wildlife or landscapes. Here he turns his gaze to something much more personal with Unconditionallove, a portrait of his partner Ellen. Potter sticks to his familiar graphite pencils in this arresting work which, as the title suggests, is a paean to the love of his life. The 42 paper panels are meticulously plotted and the work is technically impressive. But it is also imbued with feeling and emotion which shows through in every carefully considered line.

Gorah Wandang – To Wear a Long Time Ago, by Bibbulman artist Lea Taylor, is a collection of three kangaroo skin cloaks, known as booka in Bibbulmun Noongar language. The booka are a stunning crossover of traditional skills and wearable art. With their rich earthy natural colours, they literally carry the signature of their country. Two of them are simple stitched skins while the third is lavishly decorated with painted motifs of flora and fauna.

In a separate striking piece, Gabbi Didup Yen – Ripples, Taylor displays her contemporary weaving prowess, turning raffia and emu feathers into a 1.3 metre diameter rippled pool which references the continuing impacts of colonisation and displacement of her people. 

A painting of an animal scull on an orange background, decorated to look like wallpaper.
Clare McFarlane explores themes of beauty and death in ‘new remnant/old remnant’, 2021, acrylic and digital print on canvas, 130 x 90cm each (diptych), image courtesy of artist

Theo Costantino rips open the human experience to reveal what is going on inside, both physically and psychologically. Their collection of mixed media works, including human heads in wax and representations of internal organs in leather, wax, fabric and other materials, are repulsive and grotesque but at the same time strangely alluring. 

Daniel Kristjansson offers three exciting images using digital photographic collage to examine the chaos that exists adjacent to our carefully ordered world. His clever manipulation of suburban scenes transports them to a visually entrancing fantasy setting while also challenging our place in the environment. 

Clare McFarlane delves into her rural upbringing for her collection of acrylic on canvas works which contrast the serenity of pastoral scenes with a brooding darkness. At first glance, the two series, The Ebbing and The Advancing, present as fairly standard landscapes, but the muted tones and moody skies hint at something foreboding just beyond our awareness. Her diptych New remnant/old remnant is a skilful exploration of themes around beauty and death, contrasting large animal skulls with delicate, decorative patterns seemingly borrowed from wallpaper.

The winner of the John Stringer Prize is determined by a vote of members of the Collectors Club, who initiate and run the event. There seems little doubt they got it right this year. Belyea has said he didn’t expect to win because he worked simply in the medium of paint without the complexity of some of the other finalists.

But there is something to be said for focusing on a process and doing it well. Belyea’s win is fitting recognition of his dedication to a near 30-year career in the visual arts.

The John Stringer Prize continues at John Curtin Gallery until 15 December 2021.

Pictured top are three of the five panels from Merrick Belyea’s ‘Brigadoon’, oil on board, 5 panels. Each panel 122.5 x 91.5cm, image courtesy of artist.

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Author —
Craig McKeough

Craig McKeough is a writer and visual artist, with a lifetime’s experience in journalism, covering everything from the arts to horse racing, politics and agriculture. Craig has always been drawn to the swing; an egalitarian, grounding piece of equipment where you can go as high and wild as you want, but you’ll always return to where you started.

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