Reviews/Visual Art

Portraits of creativity and insight

17 October 2022

From the traditional to the experimental, the 40 portraits that make up this year’s Lester Prize are well worth visiting, says Jaimi Wright.

The Lester Prize has returned to the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 2022, bringing with it a fresh selection of artworks that explore and experiment with portraiture.

Formerly the Black Swan Portraiture Prize, the award was renamed the Lester Prize in 2019 in order to recognise the efforts of its leading patron Richard Lester AM, and develop a more distinctive and accessible public image than the regularly used Black Swan.

A Lester Prize painting of a First Nations man - he wears a bright yellow hat and bright blue shirt. One eye is squinting.
A face brimming with the warmth of stories and experience: Sophia Alone, ‘Respect Grandfather Kutri Makanykarra’, 2022 acrylic on canvas

This idea of distinctiveness and accessibility is something that lies at the central ethos of the Lester Prize and is apparent in this year’s finalists, selected by panellists Dr Clarissa Ball, Amy Barrett-Lennard, Linton Partington, Bahar Sayed (the exhibition’s curator), and Tyrown Waigana.

Drawing equally from creativity, insight and technical skill, the 40 works that comprise the exhibition remind viewers that there is no one way to “paint” a portrait.

This year’s winner, both of the Richard Lester Prize for Portraiture and the Minderoo Spirit Prize, is Ngarla woman Sophia Alone’s Respect Grandfather Kutri Makanykarra (2022). Alone, a member of the Spinifex Hill Studio in South Hedland, has depicted her late grandfather, who was a Ngarla Elder. Although a smaller work, the figure has a striking presence.

Alone portrays her grandfather at proximity in a warped and abstract style. Though haggard, his face is also brimming with the warmth of stories and experience. The effect is a simple and yet touching character study.

The recipient of the Tony Fini Foundation Artist Prize is Diecast-speech painting (picture of David Sequeira) (2021) by Greg Creek, which is a portrait of the Melbourne-based artist, researcher and curator in oil and acrylic on cut linen. The painting captures Sequeria in action lecturing, but in his living room and at an indirect angle. Behind him is the impression of a coffee table, and his ironing board has become a makeshift lectern.

A Lester Portrait Prize picture of a man sitting at an ironing board with a microphone. He looks as though he is fragmented. Brightly coloured objects sit on a shelf behind him.
Sequeria’s body vibrates with energy: Greg Creek, ‘Diecast-speech painting (picture of David Sequeira)’, 2021, oil and acrylic on cut linen

Sequeria’s body vibrates with energy, his form created with black brushstrokes that are barely held together. In his highly original style, Creek has represented Sequeria as a man of concepts and action, but also accessibility.

The two winners of the Highly Commended award are a testament to just how varied the submissions of the finalists are this year. Nicholas Hopwood’s Quest (2022) in oil on canvas is a portrait with a twist.

Instead of depicting his daughter head on, Hopwood has illustrated her – in a photo-realistic style – roaming about the house as she uses a VR headset. Unaware she is being observed, Hopwood has painted his daughter at her most candid; her chin juts out towards us, and we can see up her nose. Hopwood’s entry is a bemusedly affectionate and inventive window into his personal life.

The second winner of the Highly Commended prize is Mark Chu’s Here in spirit (2021). The painting in oil on canvas has evolved much over time, as it is made up of layers of his previous artwork. In this way, it physically mirrors Chu’s relationship with the subject, Nell, who is now his wife.

Nell is shown sitting naked on the toilet at Chu’s parents place in Melbourne, in a heavy and semi-abstracted style, her head far too small for her body below. The image is designed to condense time and space; the words “here in spirit”, written crudely in blue and red on the bathroom wall above her, were originally painted by Chu on the kitchen tiles in their New York apartment. Disjointed yet endearing Here in spirit (2021) is a moving chronology of Chu’s love for his wife.

With forty strong finalists, The Lester Prize for Portraiture in 2022 continues to honour the tradition of portraiture as well as encouraging new and exciting experimentation and is a collection well worth a day out.

The 2022 Lester Prize for Portraiture exhibition continues until 20 November 2022.

Pictured top: Nicholas Hopwood, ‘Quest’ 2022, oil on canvas

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Author —
Jaimi Wright

Jaimi is a Development Coordinator for ARTRAGE and your friendly neighbourhood arts writer. She also writes for Art Almanac and ArtsHub as she cannot keep still. Her favourite piece of play equipment is the roundabout even though her stomach should know better.

Past Articles

  • Variety is the spice of life at Print Award

    From sepia dreams to a vibrant tribute to life, the 46th iteration of Australia’s longest running print prize has generated innovation aplenty, discovers Jaimi Wright.

  • Youth Pulse beats bright

    The breadth of talent on display in this year’s exhibition of Year 12 graduate work leaves Jaimi Wright assured that the future of WA art is in safe hands.

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