Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hardly Worth a Minchin

Tim Minchin by Sam Leach (detail) Photo by Anthony Johnson

Say you are the judge of a prize called 'Archibald' and you have a contestant called 'Leach' and no entries that are even vaguely exciting. What would you do? Exactly.

Above is the portrait of London-based Australian singer-slash-comedian-slash-whateverelsepayscashmoney Tim Minchin that has just won Australia's most prestigious art prize for Sam Leach. The Archibald is awarded annually for a portrait of a 'known' Australian, painted from life. The 'known' bit is interpreted pretty loosely as self-portraits are also allowed, even from artists who would be 'known' only to their immediate family and their Schnauzer, Beryl.

Like most art prizes, the Archibald is quite often mired in controversy. Winners in the past have been slated for representing their subjects as caricatures or distorting their appearance to make them look like a vampire Mr Potato Head. In more recent years this approach has become de rigeur. It was not necessary for Sam Leach to stretch his imagination in the direction of gothic, however. Tim Minchin really does look like that.

There's always a clever-clogs who does a Rauschenberg and sends in a cigarette packet with the words, 'this is a portrait of Dannii Minogue if I say it is,' scrawled on it in magic marker. These are people who would benefit more from some free lessons in time managment than an art prize.

This year's award has already sent a buzz through the art world as the winning picture is a bit of a throwback. For a start it did not require a crane to convey it and no gallery extensions needed to be commissioned to accommodate it. The conventional wisdom in recent years has been that only really big paintings are any good because no one wants to pay a lot of money for something that could have been painted on a recycled Corn Flakes packet.

Sam Leach's style is described as having its roots in the Dutch still life tradition. As retro statements go, that's right up there with bring back the horse and cart. Given that post-modernism has already had more near-death experiences than Pete Doherty, I wouldn't be investing in a black hat just yet but I do wonder whether this award reflects the dull, plodding conservatism that is pervading everything.

The 'freshness' that is being attributed to this painting and its maker is entirely superficial, yet there is genuine enthusiasm for it in the critical response. Sam Leach is young and that always seems to be reason enough for salivation in the art world. But the implication of 'new' that goes with 'young' is entirely absent. Even the subject's look is more than a little tired. Didn't we go through this smeared kohl stuff with Robert Smith in the early 80s?

So, what is going on here? Has portraiture reached a nadir? Conflating this mystique of freshness is the banal exchange between artist and subject that has been widely reproduced and delighted in. Minchin said,

"What I like about my portrait is that it's clear young Samuel has really put some effort into it. I particularly like how he made my lounge room floor look so clean - this will please my mother - and I'm seriously considering buying a print.' So thanks Tim, thanks everybody."

Leach said,

"I like his toes mostly. It was very important for me to get the toes in because he performs with bare feet and I was very happy with them."

Well it certainly makes a nice change from the usual belly-flop into the murky pool of human-condition pondering to which artists are suicidally prone. It's poking fun at a stance that is crying out to be lampooned without mercy but is it an advance or a retreat? Are these really the only two directions available?