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May 21, 2018 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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The Adam Portraiture Award is Anachronistic and Goofy and I Love It

Every two years, the New Zealand Portrait Gallery solicits original paintings from the public. There were about 300 submissions this year, with first place winning a prize of $20,000.

The prize went to Logan Moffat for Elam, a large oil-on-canvas studio interior inhabited by Jayden Plank and Harry Telfer. It’s a chaotic composition; the eye obediently follows the arrow along Jayden’s forearm towards his self-conscious hands, before pinging up to his and Harry’s stuporous faces. It’s Elam without much elan because Moffat is getting on with the work of being a real artist.

I like Elam. The faces are full of character without being overwrought. The composition is complex enough to illustrate the painter’s considerable skill and prompt the viewer to further interrogate the work. How is that mobile constructed? What has “pearlescent curvature”? Can Jayden step out of those shorts, or must he peel them off, his lover tugging at the disgorged waistband while he slides the legs down his thighs?

Given the open, egalitarian nature of the prize, it’s a little annoying that Elam is so explicitly a painting by a painter who paints. But it makes sense in the context of portraiture’s declining position in the art world, relative to its increasing position in internet art or on Instagram. As a form’s popularity declines, its exponents tend to identify themselves with it more ostentatiously. As Hera Lindsay Bird writes, “To be fourteen, and wet yourself extravagantly / At a supermarket checkout / As urine cascades down your black lace stocking / And onto the linoleum / Is to comprehend what it means to be a poet”. Portrait painters too, I suspect.

Many of the works in the Adam Portraiture Award exhibition aren’t so explicitly about art, however. They’re about dogs. Second place went to Martha Mitchell for Things to do, places to be, a teenage boy with a dog in his lap that evokes ’90s shopping mall photo studios. It’s a hyperreal rendition of uncool.

Another piece in the “Legs to hump, places to pee” genre is Marcus Ebbett’s Constable Rob Eastham with Ike, a work whose full-bearded, Holden-engineered menace is almost forgiven by Ike’s total disinterest. Ebbett depicts Eastham as you might see him shot for a newspaper. It’s objective, photorealist reporting, minus any hint of a headline as to why.

Implicit in the decision to spend time painting someone is some sort of fondness the artist has for their subject, or, in the case of Katharine White’s Tanja and Anubis, that the subject has for herself. Tanja, chin raised, dominates the viewer and Anubis, with her hand tellingly close to his balls. She’s in control of him and the representation of herself, something she can further micromanage in the gold-framed mirrors clustered on her wall like a bank of security camera TVs.

Is White deliberately drawing attention to Tanja’s narcissism? A friend I took to the show, a poet, saw the knowingness behind Tanja and Anubis as utterly obvious, but then again she saw it in almost every single painting. I’m not so sure. Portrait painters don’t think like poets. It’s SARDINES and ORANGES.* Sometimes people just reckon their living rooms are awesome, and what’s wrong with that?

Gavin Chai, at least, did critically engage. His Big Brother seems totally surprised to be noticed despite his high-vis, which rouges his cheek in traffic-cone orange. There’s the beginnings of a story there about who we do choose to depict that’s befitting of the competition.
The 2018 Adam Portraiture Award exhibition continues until May 27.

* SARDINES and ORANGES is a reference to Frank O’Hara’s poem Why I Am
Not a Painter

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