My practice parallels portraiture, but I'm not sure that it is portraiture. My work constantly strives to deal with ideas of self, personhood and humanity. My ambition is to get closer to portraying a human subject as profoundly as possible. Loosely I discuss my work as if it were portraiture, but I believe what I aspire to is more complicated than the tradition of portraiture allows. Nevertheless through the fine art infrastructure of galleries, awards and historical traditions, it's impossible for me not to engage with the portrait as an artistic force. My work is personal and my practice (I suppose) could be likened to an individual existing in a population of practices and critical frameworks that sometimes require my individual practice to take on normative roles within its context - it more easily identifies with portraiture than any other community.
The meaning of what a portrait is can be defined by its linguistic history and origin but it can also by how the term is used in public discussion. The public's ideal of what a portrait is depends on how powerful figures in the world of art interpret or express its meaning. One of Australia's leading institutions and taste-makers of portraiture is the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize (DMNPP). DMNPP is an acquisitive award of $150,000 given to the creator of a portrait. It's winnings are double the value of its major non-acquisitive rival the Archibald Prize. Previous winners include Ben Quilty, Leslie Rice, David Fairbairn, Fiona Lowry - represented artists who are known in a number of high profile contexts in the Australian art world. Ben Quilty has subsequently won the Archibald prize of 2011, represented by Jan Murphy Gallery in Brisbane; the same commercial gallery that represents Leslie Rice, who is also a 2012 Archibald finalist; Fiona Lowry is a renowned and celebrated indiginous Australian artist represented by Gallery Barry Keldoulis, David Fairbairn - a common feature among the finalists of the Archibald, Dobell Prize and represented by Stella Downer Fine Art. The prize is highly competitive and the winners are usually already or about to become - made artists. The types of works that these high profile artists enter and win with sets the expectations for the following year. As do some logistical considerations about managing the prize - how entrants submit their works and what's eligible.
I initially wanted to submit Scrutiny, 2011 (above left) to the Moran prize but the work exceeds the maximum size (greater than 3 metres at approximately 8 x 2 x 1.2m in scale). The scale of this work is a combination of large and small. A grand scale work made of smaller drawings (each 30 x 40cm) which could be broken down for individual display but not without sacrificing the longevity of the work as a complete piece. Scrutiny is considerably more impressive as a mass of smaller pictures infinitized by the mirrors which encase them.
The Moran prize is not alone in judging the acceptable scale for portraits. When looking closely at the 'Terms and Conditions' of the each of the two leading Australian Portrait prizes, Moran and the Archibald Prizes, scale, subject matter and form are dictated by the host prizes. The winning work is not necessarily the best portrait but the best work that fits the terms and conditions. Scrutiny misses this opportunity to stand next to and be compared to the tradition of portraiture, to enter into the debate about how best to represent a particular person. This case illustrates one small part of how portraiture becomes normative and then normalized towards a predictable form. In the world of prizes, portraits are smaller than 90,000 square centimetres.
Other small effects of the big institutional portrait prizes are the materials that they are made with, the spatial form they can take - preferably or in the words of the Doug Moran Prize "essentially two dimensional, with a suitably prepared surface.". Whether specifically stated or not the logistics of the prize sculpt a particular form of work. The Archibald requires the entrant to physically deliver it to a depot or to the Art Gallery of New South Wales on the specified date. As I live regionally, and work beyond the two-dimensional format of drawing and painting, I tend to forego entering the Archibald because insurance and transport to AGNSW is difficult, and the likelihood of being included as a finalists has not yet persuaded me to give it a go.
Errol Fielder (Finding Arthur Wicks Portrait Miniature Series), 2011 (above right) is 4cm x 5cm. It is comprised of 4 layers of 3mm glass with acrylic ink on each, magnetized together to create a layered portrait of Dr Errol Fielder. Because the painting of Errol is so small and made of glass I am reluctant to leave it in the hands of the Art Gallery of New South Wales because I fear it might be dropped or have things stuck to it for cataloguing prior to judging. But it was still difficult to submit to the Moran.
Moran has moved to digital entries. It allows entrants to submit a Jpeg of their work rather than the original piece. What is entered is no longer a work of art, but an image of a work of art. In the initial judging (before finalists are selected) works can be handled digitally, a move which no doubt cuts the cost of storage and staffing - for both the host and the artist. Instead the work is represented by one image. Each image uploaded for entry costs $50.00 and only one image per work can be entered. My image was unacceptable because it was smaller than the minimum that the website is set up to handle.
This is not to say that my work was not eligible for entry in the Moran, but that the website was set up to auto correct any entry that was approximately 40mm x 50mm. During a phone I was informed that I would have to give the minimum dimensions of A2 which is about 400mm x 300mm and then follow up an email and hope that my work wasn't judged on a whole different scale - I don't believe that Errol Fielder stacks up in an imagined A2 scale. It turned out that through some trickery with the system I was able to retrospectively update.
I look forward to knowing whether my work belongs in the context of the Moran and other prizes. Unlike previous entries of mine to the Moran in 2009, I no longer make works to fit into prizes. but when my inbox fills in with reminders that I can submit to a prize - like what happened with this one, I wonder what relationship my work has or could potentially have to the art infrastructure of today. I've provided the terms and conditions for both the Archibald and the Moran for 2012. It's interesting how both prizes have subtly different attitudes to portraiture as outlined by the terms and conditions for each prize. The terms and conditions are included below for each prize for a more detailed view of what kinds of portraits are stimulated by the Australian arts infrastructure.