Times change but the art establishment rolls on

Namatjira, by Imants Tillers, which won the 2013 Wynne Prize. Art Gallery of NSW

It was the 1960s when a curator – who shall remain nameless – was ordered to hang Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira’s work in his gallery. He hung the painting next to the ladies toilet with a vase of gladioli. This was seen as wit.

Everything changes, and so do the lives and circumstances of artists.

This year, Imants Tillers won the Art Gallery of NSW’s Wynne Prize for a work that pays tribute to Namatjira.

His winning painting, Namatjira, is easily the strongest and most powerful work in the exhibition. It dwarfs Tillers first modest entry of 1974, Summer murmurs, an appropriation based on Hans Heysen’s 1909 watercolour, Summer.

Then and now

Back in 1974, when Heysen was seen as a stodgy but potent icon, Albert Namatjira was widely regarded as kitsch.

Because his art was favoured by both conservative taste and women’s magazines, he was mocked by the progressives.

Tillers, at that time, was a young artist who had received a degree of critical acclaim, but was hardly well-known to the conservative taste that then dominated the Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW. His previous success in popular competitions had come from winning prizes in the Kingsgrove RSL Art Prize and the Rockdale Art Prize.

I was, at that time, working at the Art Gallery of New South Wales as the very junior curatorial assistant and therefore had the task of supervising the hanging of the three popular prize exhibitions: the Archibald, the Wynne and the Sulman. These were the days before the gallery had worked out that a bit of showmanship from the director could make money out of dross.

Heysen, at that time, was seen as an artist of the academic establishment. I took a great deal of pleasure in hanging Tillers’ radical small scale manipulated work so that it was surrounded by very traditional oil paintings.

By 1993, Tillers was seen as sufficiently eminent to be invited to judge the Sulman Prize. The Sulman is different from the Archibald and Wynne, which are governed by rules that dictate the judges are the Gallery’s trustees. Instead it is judged by a single artist, selected by the trustees.

As judge, Imants Tillers gave the 1993 Sulman Prize to John Montefiore’s giant masterwork, Life Series and then shaped the rest of the exhibition so that all the works selected complemented the winner. For many of these artists, it was the first time they had ever been hung at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and this was very much to the benefit of their professional careers.

As Imants Tillers’ career evolved, he became seen as a fully-fledged member of the arts establishment and from 2001 to 2009 served as a Trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW.

The awarding of the Archibald and/or Wynne Prize to a former trustee has been a standard practice at the Gallery from time immemorial. It is an improvement on the practice of the 1930s when the prize sometimes went to current trustees.

Tillers’ longstanding practice has been based on appropriation, of manipulating large scale reproductions of the work of others reconsidered with layers of text.

In 2012 Tillers was awarded the Wynne prize for Waterfall (after Williams), a painting that cites the 20th century’s Fred Williams tribute to the 19th century artist Eugene von Guérard’s Waterfall, Strath Creek, overlaid with an Indian sutra on the fleeting nature of life.

‘Waterfall, Strath Creek’ by Eugene von Guérard. Art Gallery of NSW
‘Waterfall (after Williams)’ by Imants Tillers, won the 2012 Wynne Prize. The work cites Fred William’s tribute to 19th century artist Eugene von Guérard’s work ‘Waterfall, Strath Creek’ Art Gallery of NSW

This work could be thought of as Tillers placing himself in partnership with these two predecessors as an interrogation of one of the central questions of Australian art history.

In Namatjira, Tillers layers the words of the Austrian poet Thomas Bernhard, to echo the tragedies of Namatjira’s life:

a victim of infinite distances/ a victim of what is infinitely close at hand

It reads and looks like an artist’s chant of grief:

because of your covenant with desolation/ the greatest calamity affecting a person/ the inscrutability of heaven.

Albert Namatjira is now honoured in every major Australian public art museum.

Tiller’s winning work not only honours the landscape tradition, it also honours Albert Namatjira for his art, and for the way he has acted as a cultural beacon for his people.

Future shifts

While they usually endorse the establishment, the annual exhibitions can also signal future cultural shifts.

This year the Trustees gave the $2000 watercolour prize to Xiuying Chen’s delightful Central Railway Station, Sydney, where doves in pairs shower blessings on a very Chinese vision of Sydney’s transit hub.

Xiuying Chen’s work ‘Central Railway Station, Sydney’ won the 2013 Trustees’ Watercolour Prize. Art Gallery of NSW

It is a well deserved win, but Chen is not the only Asian artist to star in the exhibitions. Pei Pei He shares Xiuying Chen’s interst in another investigation of city trams this time hung in the Sulman, as is Dong Wan Fan’s wonderful colourful dragons.

Pei Pei He’s work ‘City circle’ also hangs in the Sulman exhibition this year. Art Gallery of NSW

These Chinese and Southeast Asian artists with their different ways of seeing are gradually becoming a critical mass. Given time, some of them – like Tillers and other artists before him – will join the artistic establishment.