On Friday evening in Melbourne, popular broadcast journalist Lisa Wilkinson unveiled her debut exhibition of portrait photographs at a splendid event catered to a Spring Carnival standard, and, no, I don’t know why in fuck I was invited, either. Still. Life would be very little if we did not exploit its administrative oversights, and so I attended, bringing with me two thoughtful connoisseurs of the form.
On the advice of a curator friend, I nudged Leigh Raymond, a cultural critic, from partial print retirement and Winston Appleyard, a theatre-maker and photography enthusiast — one so ardent, he wondered aloud if he shouldn’t warn Wilkinson about aluminium mounting, “The long-term effects on the image are still undetermined!” Together, we consumed all the art, and just a little of the gratis champagne.
Now, before you get narky, I know these pictures were not taken for critics. And I know that the artist and her sponsor don’t give a fig anyhow for appraisal. In an interview last week with News Corp, Wilkinson said that if she had ever listened to critics, she’d never have done a damn thing. Wilkinson’s sponsor, a large camera manufacturer, also emphasises the market virtue of giving things a red hot go — indeed, they exhort consumers to do the same. But these attitudes, however inspiring they might feel, do not exempt work from criticism. Which, to spare the more important reader the expense of her time, is not, in this case, glowing.
We’ll get to that. But first, let’s consider a particular hurdle to criticism upheld by no less an authority than GOOP, Gwyneth Paltrow’s widely read newsletter: It’s wrong to criticise women. We must celebrate any woman, and permit “pursuit of her heartfelt dreams” — even if those dreams have already been funded by a publicly listed company. In Paltrow’s terms, and those of a good many women, criticism of the work of women is necessarily a patriarchal act. Most especially, I’d suppose, if that woman’s work is explicitly intended to elevate other women.
So Wilkinson, who has dressed all her well-known female sitters in the white that Raymond notes is currently the western world’s preferred power shade, has merit built unassailably in to her exhibition.
We cannot deny that the artist and her subjects, all “women of influence”, have courage, and so criticism in the face of this seems petty. But, this is an age where cultural criticism, including that of male artists, is seen as petty — even here, a publication with the word “review” in its title, comments emerge to undermine the practice of criticism; “You’re just a jealous woman, Razer”, a particularly prevalent choice. But, really. Criticism has functions beyond that of ennobling the mean little bitches who dole it out.
There are many more who suppose that criticism of a portrait of an inspiring woman is also a criticism of an inspiring woman.
One of these functions is to cultivate art, which needs a bit more than courage from its creators, male or female, to prosper. Another is to understand the broader conditions in which that art was produced. And, yes, I know that this 101 on the value of criticism will find some of you yelling, “Don’t you even Sontag, you chump?” at your mobile devices. But there are many more who suppose that criticism of a portrait of an inspiring woman is also a criticism of an inspiring woman. Well, for heaven’s sake, it isn’t.
The portrait of a woman cannot be seen solely as a copy of the woman. Its intention, as Wilkinson and her team of image-makers would know well, is to say something. You don’t hire a gallery, accept the mentorship of a master photographer and work with a stylist, a printer and distributors of quality grog if all you want to offer is a happy snap.
What Wilkinson tells us she wants to offer through her work is “diversity”, “inspiration” and the visual reminder that “Aussie women are fantastic”. What her lens, and the event that celebrates it, succeeds in offering is, perhaps, something else.
The subjects could be reasonably said to be diverse; but not as diverse as the lamb ad. Unlike the producers of the “meat that doesn’t discriminate”, Wilkinson has not turned to the Australian Bureau of Statistics for guidance, but to her Rolodex. We have philanthropist Gretel Packer, sporting great Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Captain Cate McGregor, actor Asher Keddie, publisher Mia Freedman, academic Susan Carland, actor and adoption advocate Deborra-Lee Furness, ultra-marathon cpmpetitor Turia Pitt, former NSW Governor Marie Bashir, and former cherished adviser to a former PM, Peta Credlin. Insofar as a group of people holding above-average referent, technocratic or financial powers can be said to be diverse, they are, I guess, diverse.
Peta Credlin, normally gifted of great wardrobe, has been put into a wide-legged, big-buttoned smock suit that could have been sewn for Pierrot.
But, power diversity, and the greatness and the inspiration, are not powerfully evident in the frame. To the untaught eye, i.e. mine, the women look washed out to the point of mediocrity. Raymond and Appleyard can describe this with more precision than blind-o, here. “There are technical issues, which include lighting and grey-scale tone range.” The black and white portraits are of women in white set against abstract white backgrounds, which makes imaging textiles quite tricky. So, several of the gals, often denied depth of field, just appear as though they’re trapped inside a big white tube.
Credlin, a person normally gifted of great wardrobe, has been put into a wide-legged, big-buttoned smock suit that could have been sewn for Pierrot. She is, curiously, seated with no hint of motion on a low rung of a ladder — an odd choice for a woman who so famously ascended. Perhaps Wilkinson intended to show another side of this well-known adviser. But, surely “sad, defeated clown” could not have been the intention. Here, Wilkinson has made one of the nation’s toughest female players look vulnerable and confused. I’m sure this was an accident.
Goolagong Cawley’s lovely and famous face is accidentally lost to some sort of blaze. Cate McGregor’s normally defiant look is accidentally overwhelmed by yards of white space. It’s just Mia Freedman and Asher Keddie, perhaps the subjects most accustomed to engaging with a lens, who offer up a beguiling and intended version of themselves.
Asher Keddie’s eyes say, “don’t fuck with me”. Her scarf and her spaghetti straps say “the stylist just fucked with me”.
The Freedman portrait is the greatest success; we see a cheeky, vulnerable, woman balancing in a moment of deep conviction and mild distraction. But Keddie’s look seems less the result of reassurance by the artist and more of irritation that she’s wearing just as much frou-frou around her fine neck as Nina Proudman. Her eyes say, “don’t fuck with me”. Her scarf and her spaghetti straps say “the stylist just fucked with me”.
“I want to like these pictures,” says Appleyard, who hoped, as I had, that a woman engaged for so long with women in the visual culture would bring something new to fine art. Wilkinson is by no means an idiot, and has even wondered aloud how the life of a woman is so subservient to the image of a woman. Even as we might forgive Wilkinson’s technical clumsiness, it is difficult to overlook her unwillingness to go beyond what I suggest to my companions is a clothing catalogue tradition of photography, but what they say has no visual precedent. “I think we can call this the art of the ‘prosumer’.”
If there is something good and new to see here, it’s the marriage of people to brands. Wilkinson has a sponsor. The sponsors have proximity to a marketable level of diversity. Helen, Winston and Leigh have access to the best champagne they’ve drunk in years. We have another drop as the beautiful, young and white women in attendance take selfies in their Maticevski dresses against a faded backdrop of diversity. Art remains undisturbed. Liberal feminism remains in cheerful balance. Someone will courageously buy a camera and take portraits immune to critique.
Opening Dates: 29 October – 3 November 2016
Location: SmartArtz Gallery, 2 Alfred Place, South Melbourne
Opening Hours: 11am – 4pm
Opening Dates: 5 November – 16 December
Location: Corner of Elizabeth and Lonsdale Street (upstairs gallery), Melbourne
Hours: Monday to Thursday 9am to 6pm, Friday 9am to 9pm, Saturday 9am to 6pm, and Sunday 11am to 5pm
Opening Dates: 2 November – 9 November 2016
Location: Forecourt, Customs House. 31 Alfred Street, Sydney
Opening Hours: 24 hours