There is something exquisitely old-fashioned about a portraiture competition. Historically, portraiture was the domain of the upper classes, those who could afford to have their likeness recorded for posterity. A portraiture competition suggests a judge, tradition, a healthy dose of competitive jostling and speculation, a cash prize and a wall of appropriately grave faces.
The New Zealand Portrait Gallery’s five-year-old Adam Portraiture Award exhibits some but not all of these qualities. Judged this year by Lilly Koltun, director general of the Portrait Gallery of Canada, the record field of 300 entries was various and far from conventional; winner Irene Ferguson received $15,000.
Koltun’s particular interest is photographic portraiture, but she insists style takes the back seat when she’s judging. It is the way an artist negotiates the relationship between subject, viewer and artist that most concerns her.
Wellington artist Ferguson took first place with The Blue Girl. Ferguson is not known for her “nice” pictures. Koltun hailed the work a “new Venus” and a contemporised Gainsborough Blue Boy. This is perhaps to gloss over the darkness, or depth, in this artist’s work.
In The Blue Girl, Ferguson’s friend Johanna Sanders is hosing her lawn. She is wearing dark glasses, standing on beige ground, and these combined factors distance us from her. We seek eye contact in order to engage or empathise with her, but it is denied. The dynamic of subject, viewer and artist is acutely manipulated by Ferguson so that in this ostensibly laid-back portrait there is a degree of high-wire tension, and ultimately little is revealed. The casually dressed Sanders, engaged in everyday activity, becomes an effectively masked figure set against an austere blank background; the contrast is slightly surreal, slightly unsettling.
Ferguson’s recent works, such as The Sister, exhibited last month at the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery, Wellington, suggest her sensitivity to the macabre potential of a distorted, magic-realist version of portraiture. But she is not only a portraitist. A series of older works used acrylic, shellac, aluminium and nail enamel to create textured colour fields: blushing flesh tones reminiscent of nothing so much as chaffed skin. Ferguson studied at Otago School of Fine Art, then New York Academy of Fine Art. She is represented by Janne Land Gallery, Wellington.
On Radio New Zealand National, a culturally cringing Lynn Freeman asked Koltun her impression of the art of this country “not known for its art”, and Koltun reassured her she had found the general quality very high, and had been struck by what she called the “egalitarian and inclusive” selection. Straying far from conventional portraits commemorating the great and the good, these are works interested in profoundly ordinary subjects.
A good example of this is Barry Ross Smith’s Winston, featuring a gloved meatworker toting a sodden bull-calf. The subject looks self-deprecatingly at the viewer, and many viewers will perhaps nod back in recognition. In Graham Clyde Henry by Denise Simmonds (highly commended), bearded Henry smiles from the porch; one can almost feel the sun warming the broken step, the slightly metallic taste of the baked beans he eats from a can. The judge obviously enjoyed its deftly executed expression of the subject in his element.
There are also plenty of local celebrity faces in the show, including the flattering Rodney (Hide) by party-supporter Lindsey Mitchell. Tariana Turia is there, as is a watercolour Gaylene Preston and a Jimi Hendrix-like Peter Jackson. Justin Pearson’s oil portrait of his father, Alan Preston, received a highly commended.
Familiar styles surface disappointingly predictably: a crowd of Nigel Brown and Michael Smither lookalikes, many Rita Angus derivatives. Successful among these was past winner (2000 and 2002) Marianne Muggeridge’s Sensible Trousers,Self, where a strong-featured topless woman confronts the viewer with a direct gaze that seems at once pragmatic and deeply self-assured.
The New Zealand Portrait Gallery has come out strong in terms of its stated goal: “providing a gallery for the portrayal of New Zealanders”. This year it has engaged with artists confident to play with tradition. With luck, this is the tradition that will continue.