Spent a gorgeous Autumn Saturday checking out a handful of galleries. First stop was Blender, tucked in a Paddington back street, which features lovely little exhibitions of photography in a converted two-story terrace. There are classic rock portraits in the dunny, and a droolworthy display of Lomo cameras and accessories. The current exhibition is “Ludlites Love Water”, where photographers used plastic cameras like Dianas and Holgas to capture water-themed images with summery colour distortion and softened light. The Ludlites are a collective of eight photographers who eschew digital photography for the dreamy lo-fi shots of plastic cameras. The result is a collection of images that could have been shot yesterday or thirty years ago, hazy like memories, and capturing both a sense of nostalgia for long-ago family beach holidays and unsettling, moody seascapes.
After a jaunt through the Paddington markets, I then stopped by the Australian Centre for Photography on Oxford street. ACP hosts our exhibition of Walkley photographic finalists every year and it’s a beautiful space for photography, always stylishly curated. With the Head On photographic festival just kicking off, ACP is currently showing all the finalists and winners from Head On’s portrait competition. Couldn’t pick a favourite from the exhibition, they were all so different. There was an interesting shot of Geoff Ostling, a retired history teacher who has his body tattooed all over, and has bequeathed his skin to the National Gallery.
I have a kind of obsession with the idea of curation, and the little explanations that go with images or objects being exhibited. Those words don’t just give context or explanation; they can completely change the way you see an artwork or artefact. With many of the Head On portraits, knowing the background of the person posing for the portrait, or the circumstances of the shot, added a poignancy you might have missed from just seeing the image. There was a beautiful photograph by Steven Siewert of his son, rendered even more lovely by the words he wrote about it… describing his love for his child and how, when he first felt the hollow between his shoulder blades, he knew it was the spot where there had once been angel wings attached.
In print publications, the written captions that accompany photographs are generally much more factual. But the captions of exhibitions have the potential to completely reframe people’s perceptions. Occasionally, the blurbs soar a little too esoteric, bulging with the double-speak and beauroblab of artists forced to justify the cultural significance of their work in order to fund it. But for the most part they help you appreciate the stories of artists, their subjects, and the moments that bind them together for eternity.
The same principle was at play at the NSW Art Gallery, where the portrait theme continued as we took in the Archibald Prize finalists. The tattoed man was there again (“The Bequest” by Nick Stathopoulos), along with portraits of people from all walks of life – and in all different styles. My favourite was Carla Fletcher’s stylised portrait of CW Stoneking, with pencil cross-hatching detail topping off a simple palette dominated by white space.
It’s always fascinating to examine a painting and try to understand how the artist worked. Up close, the surfaces swathed in tactile sweeps and splodges of paint are often like landscapes in themselves. You can tell brushstrokes that have been made with haste, yet even the quickest marks have an element of precision, and you wonder how a painter reaches that zone where they’re slapping paint around almost blindly but know exactly what they’re doing.
Robert Malherbe’s impressionistic portrait of artist Luke Siberras, completed in a couple of hours, hangs in hasty contrast with canvases that were six months in the making. Then there are wry touches like Greg Somers’ “Self Portrait With Picture of Dory in Grey”, a painting you just know was made to measure up to the punny title he’d first come up with.
Interesting that of all the massive canvases, it was the relatively tiny portrait of Tim Minchin (by Sam Leach) that was named the winner. There’s still time to get to the gallery and vote for the viewer’s choice award (to be announced on May 20), so get down and check it out if you haven’t already.