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News, Reviews, Visual arts

Intimate glimpses into humanity

Review: Black Swan Prize for Portraiture ·
Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) ·
Review by Lydia Edwards ·

Even amongst curators, art critics and historians, “portraiture” can be a hotly contested term. There are multiple definitions and interpretations, with the word commonly applied to broader subject matter than the human body and spirit. This exhibition, however, sticks closely to just that, and while the Black Swan Prize for Portraiture (presented by ARTrinsic in parnership with AGWA) has always attracted a wide spectrum of media and interpretation, this year’s finalists give us raw and often confronting humanity.

A man, naked from the waist up, decorated with tattoos
We are ushered in by Joanne Morris’s ‘Lister’.

The works are tucked away in a series of rooms below AGWA’s main galleries. It’s not easy to find them, and once you do there is no clear direction through the rooms: you are encouraged to meander through at your own pace, ushered in by the poster boy for the exhibit: Joanne Morris’s tattooed Lister, whose purposeful yet diffident gaze looks beyond you to the other works. The portraits are not arranged thematically or alphabetically – as a viewer, I felt that my direct line of vision on entering each room was simply hit by the brightest, largest or busiest canvases.

As is often the case, however, the portrait that moved me the most, which made me stop dead in my tracks and inhale sharply, was perhaps the best hidden. In a corner, along from Hyunji Kim’s long, bold, disorienting portrait of WA artist Patrick Doherty sits Peter Wegner’s achingly poignant Medicated Man – portrait of G.D. (detail pictured top). In a style reminiscent of Freud and Saville’s “take me as you find me” fleshy, naked bodies, the subject – Graeme Doyle – is exposed in this small canvas; vulnerable, childlike, staring with glazed eyes into the middle distance, not willing or most likely not able to engage. He lies on his side, one hand awkwardly clutching the opposite wrist in a tense, uncomfortable pose.

The exhibition is laced with themes of anxiety and huge personal challenges, but other entries offer some kind of positive spin or resolution. Not Wegner’s, which shows us a “real” face of severe mental illness in the midst of a crisis. In doing so, he offers no respite, no end in sight. Like so many great portraits we are intruding on an intensely private moment and we are fully culpable; powerless, guilty, afraid, saddened. We are the spectator, he is the subject and there is no level playing field.

A portrait of a blonde woman with green tape-like stuff emerging from her head like a plant.
Pensive yet quietly determined. Chelsea Gustaffson’s self-portrait, ‘A Shiny Mess’.

Many of the other canvases portray resilience and, in many cases, the victory of subjects depicted. Mark Tweedie and Chelsea Gustaffson’s self-portraits are sensitive yet defiant, with Tweedie’s steady gaze meeting that of the viewer. In his own words, he spends a lot of time “tangled in my own thoughts”, and his work is a way of “reconciling the brevity of life.” Gustaffson’s ingenious A Shiny Mess depicts an obvious “tangle”, with a glimmering mass of ribbon-like thread hovering above the artist’s pensive yet quietly determined features. Perhaps this medium of self-portraiture takes back some element of control that the likes of Wegner cannot achieve, with a sitter waiting to be captured by the artist. An exception to this could be Glen Preece’s Portrait of the Artist as an Alcoholic, a self-portrait that smacks of low self-esteem and a lack of surety about both his artistic and personal future. However, it is posthumous in the sense that the artist has now moved on from this part of his life; his period of creative paralysis evidently behind him – the viewer hopes – for good.

Other portraits also depict subjects who live with some kind of disability or uncertainty, the theme of anxiety an almost constant thread throughout. Other sitters are also at the mercy of the artist’s representation, though it should be noted that the result always resonates respect, affection and solidarity.

The Black Swan Prize offers a unique insight into how WA artists conceive “the portrait”, and often permits a very intimate glimpse into the psyche of both sitter and viewer. For me, this year’s theme conveyed tendrils of anxiety across Australian society, an important and much needed contribution to our growing discourse around mental health. The fact that Wegner’s piece is hidden away acts as a sign either that this side of extreme, debilitating mental illness is still feared, or as a reflection of how it is not always desirable – or indeed possible – to “battle” openly in society. This quiet, unassuming corner of the gallery is the perfect spot for reflection, critique and appreciation – and there is ample opportunity for all three in this annual display of WA talent.

The Black Swan Prize for Portraiture exhibition runs until November 26.

Pictured top is a detail from Peter Wegner’s achingly poignant “Medicated Man – portrait of G.D.”.

Lydia Edwards is a fashion historian and author. Her first book How to Read a Dress was published in 2017 and its follow up, How to Read a Suit, will be out in 2019. She lectures at ECU and WAAPA, and her favourite piece of playground equipment is the expression swing!

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