Portia Geach Memorial Award (S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney)

This writer trotted along to City Art Institute last Saturday with the express intention of reviewing its Graduate Art Show Annual 14. But first she took a quick look at the Institute’s website to see the extent of the offerings. The online catalogue did not portent well. Its front page was an amateur affair and the guide to individual artists was scarred by an intrusive and over-active web design which interfered with looking at the works — and this is a design school!

The exhibits themselves distributed through the institute’s galleries and studios were, with one or two notable exceptions stale, formulaic, derivitive — and dull. Some students had decided to pay homage to established artists like Hany Armonious, Ken and Julia Yonetani and Del Kathryn Barton, after giving up the challenge of finding any individual aesthetic voice.

Fashions sweep through art schools as elsewhere, and it seems many students have re-discovered the natural world and the kitchen cupboard and how they might play out in a modern day ‘cabinet of curiosities’ or random assemblages (formerly known as ‘installations’). So piles of domestic detritus, twigs and leaves, unidentified objects and congealed synthetic materials with unpleasant approximations of body parts and organs appeared to be everywhere. The overwhelming impression of the show was of second-rate ideas aided and abetted by sophisticated technologies. No one is yearning for tradition as such, but one would like to see original ideas buttressed with traditional skills. And this brings us to the annual Portia Geach Memorial Award at the S.H. Ervin Gallery, where there are plenty of vigorous approaches to portraiture underpinned by the solid skills of drawing and painting.

Sometimes an artist achieves longevity, not because of their excursions with the paintbrush, but because a wealthy relative has created an art prize in their memory. Such was the case with Portia Geach, one of the few Australian painters to win a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy. She studied under John Singer Sargent and George Clausen, exhibited in London, Paris, and New York and returned to Melbourne where she set up her studio at 245 Collins Street. She was, in addition to being a painter of landscapes and portraits (her portrait of Sir John Quick, one of the founders of Federation, hangs in the National Library) — an ardent suffragette and campaigner.

Portia Geach had three sisters: Miriam, Edwina (an author) and Florence — none of whom married. Portia died in October 1959 and Florence, tucked away in the Astor — where two of writer Patrick White’s aunts had faded away from malnutrition, and where she and her sisters had the services of a uniformed chauffeuse — died in February 1962 at 82. That year it was revealed that she had endowed an art prize for women — and women only — in memory of her sister, to be known as the ‘Portia Geach Memorial Fund’.

When the Permanent Trustee Company announced details of the endowment on 30 May 1962, it was surprisingly large. £12,000 was to be set aside to “provide for an annual award for a portrait taken from life of any man or woman distinguished in the arts, letters or science”. Florence had taken careful note of the Archibald Prize stipulations, and her endowment offered more money — £1000. At that time, the Archibald was worth £780. Hal Missingham, then director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales said: “This will be a fine thing for the girls.” And so it has proved, but the first award was not made until 1965 — four years after the announcement of the prize. It went to Jean Appleton for a self-portrait.

This year’s winner, (decided from 48 finalists chosen from 300 entries) was Sydney artist Sophie Cape, who was awarded the $30,000 prize for her portrait of actor Daniel Wyllie, Romper Stomper (above). The sheer physical presence and contained energy in this large dark-toned work on canvas might be linked to her former activities: an international downhill skier and Olympic sprint cyclist.

Cape had plenty of competition from a number of sound works, which included Jo Bertini’s The Bone collector-trail blazer. Through desert eyes, Eve D’Alessandro’s self portrait called Proctrastipainting — this is me to a tea (with its gentle nod to Matisse), Tamara Dean’s small oil Mirra which demonstrated the same tonal strengths as her better-known photographic compositions and Katherine Edney’s efferverscing and hyper-real Beloved man goat (David Adam Capra)2.

Eve D’Alessandro, Proctrastipainting — this is me to a tea
Eve D’Alessandro, Proctrastipainting — this is me to a tea
Tamara Dean, Mirra.
Tamara Dean, Mirra.
Katherine Edney, Beloved man goat (David Adam Capra)2.
Katherine Edney, Beloved man goat (David Adam Capra)2.
Jo Bertini, The bone collector-trail blazer. Through desert eyes.
Jo Bertini, The bone collector-trail blazer. Through desert eyes.
The Portia Geach Memorial Award exhibition is at the S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney until January 18, 2015[/b0x]

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