Australian Arts

Agnes Wales

3 October 2020

9:00 AM

3 October 2020

9:00 AM

Something is going on with Agnes Wales.  Is it possible that the current board of trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) is quietly applying the oppressive and divisive  agenda of post-modernism to the Archibald, Wynne and possibly Sulman prizes if not the whole institution? When they select an artist’s work to hang, do they first consider the gender, ethnicity, sexual or political orientation or God forbid, the age of an artist, before deciding?

If you enter the prizes, exclusion is always a possibility, it always has been.  You understand that your portrait or landscape may not be up to standard on the day or simply doesn’t appeal to the board of trustees.  It is not an easy job as they have to select a relatively small number of works from hundreds of entries.  In the end the decisions are subjective. If it becomes clear that your gender, age or ethnicity, etc. is a factor in your exclusion (or even inclusion) it becomes a very different and highly corrosive matter. It has to be acknowledged that errors may have been made in the past influenced by an artist’s gender but that was some time ago.  These days women painters tend to predominate some years. The decisions that have been made are by their very nature exclusive. I would have it that judgements have been substantially based on aesthetic and formal values intrinsic in good paintings. If artists and the wider community believe the judging of the prizes has been compromised by a politically correct post-modern agenda, the broadly accepted prestige of these historic prizes will be irreparably lost.


I am of the belief that a work of art must have a transcendent or timeless essence to be of lasting quality. It is not to say fashionably popular art isn’t attractive or seductive but so often the fashionable tastes of a period quickly recede with time and the art is no longer understood and crashes down through the hammering of the auctioneer’s gavel, sometimes to be never seen again.

If popular fashion readily approves of a new art form or theory, it is axiomatic that it will quickly become ‘old fashioned’.  You only have to remember the powerful art movements of the last decades, now almost irrelevant and mostly forgotten to understand how far contemporary art has sunk in to the transitory swamp of ‘fashion’; minimalism, hard edged abstraction, performance art, op art, pop art, art povera, conceptual art, graffiti art, appropriation art,  to name just a few – all regarded in their time as ‘cutting edge’, courageous, brave or ‘avant-garde’.  Whenever you hear the work described as ‘cutting edge’ it usually indicates the work is of little consequence and shortly will hastily advance into oblivion – another ludicrous fallacy rushing into obscurity. The tragic dichotomy of new forms of expression in the visual arts is that the new language is not always understood by the audience. It is alarming to see so many younger artists painting indecipherable abstract paintings that can be little more than narcissistic hieroglyphs of their brief and limited experiences. Abstract slop does not a painting make. The difference between a post-modern action painter and a febrile stool smearer may not be very great.

Without getting into the debate on the quality of this year’s Archibald prize winning painting by Vincent Namatjira, it is impossible not to be moved that 64 years ago (1956) a portrait of his great grandfather, Albert by Sir William Dargie was awarded the prize.  It is of great historical and cultural significance I believe, not only to Aboriginal people but the wider arts community.  Congratulations Vincent, Albert would be so proud of you.

Many years ago a friend of my father’s returned from Central Australia, a trip that was rather unusual in those days. Wearing polaroid Ray Bans he made the observation that with his sunglasses on all the colours in the landscape were changed to the colours used by Albert Namatjira in his watercolours (quite often the blues have a purple tinge). He thought that maybe over eons indigenous people have developed a type of natural filter in their eyes to counter the fiercely bright light of Central Australia. It is just a thought and it hardly matters because Albert Namatjira captured the unique light of Australia and he allowed us to look at that landscape through his eyes.

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