The ‘ferocious’ painting that won Australia’s richest landscape prize

The ‘ferocious’ painting that won Australia’s richest landscape prize

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Hadley’s may not be Australia’s most expensive or glamorous hotel, but it is the only one that sponsors the nation’s richest landscape prize. Established in 2017, the prize is a vote of faith in cultural tourism – a message that Tasmania often seems to forget, even though David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art and Dark Mofo festival have been the state’s most prominent drawcards for more than a decade.

Built with convict labour in 1834, Hadley’s is one of Australia’s oldest operating hotels. It has been through many identities during its long life, but when the current owner Don Neill took possession in 2013 he decided to bank on history and heritage to attract customers, talking up a guest list that includes a colourful procession of heroes and villains, rogues and royalty, from Errol Flynn to the great Antarctic explorers Douglas Mawson and Roald Amundsen.

This year’s winner: Vicki Yatjiki Cullinan’s Ngayuku Ngura (My Country).

With the historical angle covered, the Hadley’s Art Prize looks to Tasmania’s other main attraction, the landscape. Before MONA, people visited Tasmania to see convict relics and untrammelled wilderness. The entries in the Hadley’s Art Prize, competing for a $100,000 purse, bring the entire Australian landscape to Tasmania, with more than half the 31 finalists being Indigenous artists who have drawn their inspiration from the Outback and the desert. Locals are also well represented, with six finalists, including well-known painters such as Raymond Arnold, Michaye Boulter and Philip Wolfhagen.

This year’s winner was Vicki Yatjiki Cullinan, for a painting called Ngayuku Ngura (My Country), continuing Aboriginal artists’ dominance over Australian landscape prizes. In recent years, both the Hadley’s and the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW have included ever greater numbers of Indigenous artists, and usually declared them winners. The Glover Prize, which calls itself “Australia’s most prestigious landscape art prize”, takes a different course, as it is confined to paintings of Tasmania – not a favoured subject for artists from the Western Desert or the Kimberley.

Cullinan’s painting is a ferocious collection of reds – from a livid scarlet to soft pinks and dark, purplish tones – applied in a torrent of dots that overlap and blend. Hints of orange, white and lavender disrupt the saturating redness, adding complexity to a composition that is a product of instinct rather than calculation. Cullinan is painting her Tjurkurrpa, which makes no allowances for balance, harmony and all the other elements beloved of Western artists, of both figurative and abstract persuasions. The painting has its own internal logic that becomes more compelling the longer one looks.

Denise Brady’s Tjuratja received an Honourable Mention.

One can see why the judges – Wendy Sharpe, Fiona Foley and Milan Milojevic – thought this was the strongest work, but they gave Honourable Mentions to very different paintings by Patrick Mung Mung and Denise Brady. Mung Mung’s Ngarrgooroon Country is an attractive patchwork in which rows of tiny trees mark the boundaries of parts of a landscape painted in different coloured ochres. Brady’s Tjuratja is a more unusual proposition, being a warning against the dangers of sugar “flowing like a big river into our communities”, as the artist puts it. Thousands of tiny white dots swirl across the canvas, with lines spreading out like the delta of a river. A river of sugar?

A $10,000 Residency Prize went to Melissa Kenihan for This is not a Rehearsal, in which the shadow of a parrot on its perch falls across a scene of densely forested, rolling hills. By exposing the illusions of art, Kenihan invites us to reflect on the reality of a natural environment we take for granted.

Melissa Kenihan’s This is not a Rehearsal claimed the $10,000 Residency Prize.

There were further honourable mentions for Joshua Andree, a very promising Tasmanian landscape painter, with Once Still Water (Requiem for a Lake), and for Joan Ross for The trees came back to me in my dreams. Andree, who has a predilection for the sublime, portrays Lake Margaret, still polluted by the tailings of the mines at Mount Lyell, symbolised by a band of orange at the base of the picture. Ross continues her neon-coloured chronicle of colonial times with the image of a man dressed in the fashion of the 18th century, reflecting on a barren, deforested landscape.

Joshua Andree’s Once Still Water (Requiem for a Lake).

If “landscape” is an idea imposed on nature, in this show there are as many kinds of landscape art as there are individual ways of seeing, each of them carrying their own cultural baggage. Megan Walch even gives us a landscape with a UFO! It’s difficult, though, to imagine a viable comparison between the way an artist such as Cullinan sees the landscape to painters such as Andree or Kenihan. In choosing a winner, the judges – while trying to stick to intangibles such as quality and merit – have been obliged to make a choice between incompatible worldviews.

Megan Walch’s The Valentich Disappearance.

They came down on the side of the Aboriginal artist, perhaps feeling that the age-old lineage of this imagery, and the sense of a collective spiritual heritage, raises it above the more personalised paintings of those working within a European tradition. They may be right, but it’s not a topic that permits a workable argument. The larger, more practical, question is whether Western-style artists should be entering these competitions for any reason other than the exposure; all the first prizes are going to First Australians.

Being in Hobart, I took the obligatory journey out to MONA on the ferry and caught the end of Tomas Saraceno’s exhibition, Oceans of Air. Even though this Argentinian artist has a huge international reputation, it was the kind of show only MONA might have contemplated. Aside from the presentation in rooms so dark they felt like caves – a not-infrequent feature of this institution – there was such an emphasis on science that the aesthetics often seemed of secondary importance.

It is, however, a misassumption to equate “aesthetics” purely with the sense of sight because Saraceno wants us to recognise that we also experience the world through scent, taste and touch. Our attachment to the visual is only one, human-specific, way of registering sensation. Other creatures rely just as naturally on their sense of smell or hearing or, in the case of spiders, a hypersensitivity to touch.

Saraceno’s exhibition was filled with displays devoted to large and small aspects of the natural world. Perhaps the most striking pieces were a set of vitrines in which spot-lit spiderwebs shone like fantastic, woven architecture in the darkness. It was, apparently, the work of a group of spiders co-operating with one another, which comes as a surprise for those of us who’ve always seen them as sole traders.

The emphasis on the sky, the air, on leaves and trees, on forms of Indigenous knowledge and models of human and animal co-operation, made for a deceptively complex exhibition. It might be seen as a big advance on conventional understandings of landscape art, presenting environmental models to be experienced through all the senses. Nevertheless, I still suspected that most viewers finding themselves at this ambitious interface between art and science would feel more comfortable gazing at those unscientific landscape paintings on the walls at Hadley’s.

Hadley’s Art Prize is at Hadley’s Orient Hotel in Hobart until August 20. John McDonald was a guest of Hadley’s Orient Hotel.

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