High-class, but uninspiring paintings

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Art / Darling Portrait Prize 2020, National Portrait Gallery. Reviewed by ROB KENNEDY.

THE inaugural Darling Portrait Prize was always going to attract a lot of high-quality entries, which it did, but only a few stood out.

With no restriction on the standing of the sitter like the Archibald Prize has, still, in the works selected there were many high-profile people, such as John Bertrand by Betina Fauvel-Ogden, Susie Porter by Dee Smart and Ita Buttrose by Kirsty Neilson.

Most of the artworks are what could be called standard portraiture. Many of the painters have the subject, sitting, standing or holding a prop, and looking, well, fairly uninspired. 

‘Mia at home’ 2019, Megan Hales.

That said, several artists have captured their subjects in a unique or even an impossible position, such as the amazing portrait of the actor Mia Wasikowska by Megan Hales titled “Mia at Home”. Mia looks like she is a contortionist with one leg running straight up her body and over her head. But the label says that it is a carefully sculptured replica of Mia’s limb made to be broken for a scene in a film; the result is stunning.

‘Respite’ (Simon Yates – acrobat), 2019, John Skillington.

Another work that stood out is titled “Respite” by John Skillington, who painted the professional acrobat Simon Yates. Skillington has Yates wrapped around a rope while lying bent up on his back with his props around him. Apart from the incredible quality, the positioning of Yates stuns the viewer.

And another stunning work is “Balancing Act” by Vincent Fantauzzo. It depicts the multi-talented indigenous filmmaker Wayne Blair. Fantauzzo has Blair walking along a train track in his bare feet as he balances himself with a generous child-like smile. It portrays movement so well it looks like it’s happening live before you.

‘Balancing Act’ by Vincent Fantuzzo.

The Sydney-based artist Kathrin Longhurst is a master of revealing people’s vulnerabilities. In her portrait titled “Yuge”, who is a Chinese woman, the subject seems on the verge of tears; she grew up in Communist China. Longhurst grew up in East Germany, so their connection to Communism and what it does to people runs deep. Longhurst has captured the expressions of fear, of pain and of perhaps a life removed; the result is deeply sensitive.

‘Yuge,’ 2019, Kathrin Longhurst

Every work in the Darling Portrait Prize has a first-rate quality, and all say something unique about their subjects. There’s a balance of painterly ideas and sizes and shapes of canvases, yet few catch the eye.

The winning work painted by Anthea da Silva of Canberra dance legend Elizabeth Cameron-Dalman is perhaps the most unique artwork in the exhibition. The painting sits between finished and incomplete. It has Cameron-Dalman sitting, looking out with an eye on what’s to come, even after a lifetime of choreography and dance performed around the world.

The Darling Portrait Prize was established by the bequest of L Gordon Darling who, with his wife Marilyn, was primarily responsible for bringing the National Portrait Gallery into being.

The exhibition runs until May 10. 


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