Portraiture in the flesh – NPG’s biggest show ever

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“BE warned,” National Portrait Gallery director Angus Trumble advised as he unveiled the national institution’s newest and undoubtedly most startling exhibition to date.

Divide, 2011 by Sam Jinks
Divide, 2011 by Sam Jinks

And there was much to warn us about with “In the flesh,” curated by Penelope Grist around ten themes of humanness – “the experience of minded fleshed in a body”.

It was, Trumble calculated, easily the largest and most complicated complex exhibition in the short life of the gallery and so it was appropriate that the curator chosen was the youngest and most recently appointed.

With 63 works on show from 10 artists, (Natasha Bieniek, Robin Eley, Yanni Floros, Juan Ford, Petrina Hicks, Sam Jinks, Ron Mueck, Jan Nelson, Michael Peck and Patricia Piccinini) seven of whom were in Canberra today, it also involved 37 lenders and eight lending institutions, not least the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

In the process, Trumble said, every ounce of expertise in the registration, installation and design teams had been called upon to show us works of art that would elicit “immediate, visceral and subjective responses.”

Unsettled dogs, 2012 by Sam Jinks
Unsettled dogs, 2012 by Sam Jinks

Without wishing to interfere with those visceral responses, Trumble suggested that the works on show had been drawn together by a degree of hyper-realism. He is undoubtedly correct, but this is one case where you’ll need to view the works to see exactly what he means.

Not only is it the most explosive exhibition ever seen at the National Portrait Gallery, but it is, as Trumble hinted,  extraordinarily appropriate because the encounters with the “human beings” that you’ll see in the show, make direct comment on human images  in the permanent collection of the gallery.

At a technical level, there can be no question that these are superbly finished artworks. Even as the artists recreate human beings or create new beings,  Trumble found he could could point to “a degree of objectivity and execution, down to the last hair.” And in several of the exhibits, that’s real human hair.

Wild Man, 2005 by Ron Mueck
Wild Man, 2005 by Ron Mueck

Trumble also referred to the willingness of the exhibiting artists to experiment with scale, so you’ll  see Ron Mueck’s enormous ‘Wild man’ set against his pregnant woman. In another space – and this is not only the most explosive but  the biggest show ever for the gallery – may be seen a tiny human baby recreated by Melbourne artist Sam Jinks, next to his diminutive “Unsettled dogs” – or are they really humans? Elsewhere, we see images of “The long-awaited,” a beautiful/ugly  companion for a young boy by Skywhale creator, Patricia Piccininni,

Incidentally, most of the artists are from Melbourne, from Melbourne, Trumble’s own home town. Maybe it was something they put in the water there that created artists like these ones, he suggested.

Trumble had a parting word of optimism for the assembled media, expressing the hope that after viewing the exhibition, we might “fall into the arms of a complete stranger, having rediscovered what it means to be human.”

There aren’t many exhibitions in Canberra that can do that for you.

“In the flesh,”  at the National Portrait Gallery until March 9, entry $10/$8. The exhibition includes a family space where artist Jan Nelson will paint the walls of one gallery space with her trademark neon stripes to accompany her “Walking in tall grass” series.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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