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Razer reviews budding photographer Lisa Wilkinson and her ‘Women of influence’

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.

Melbourne
Opening Dates: 29 October – 3 November 2016
Location: SmartArtz Gallery, 2 Alfred Place, South Melbourne
Opening Hours: 11am – 4pm
Free

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
Free

Sydney
Opening Dates: 2 November – 9 November 2016
Location: Forecourt, Customs House. 31 Alfred Street, Sydney
Opening Hours: 24 hours
Free

26 responses to “Razer reviews budding photographer Lisa Wilkinson and her ‘Women of influence’

  1. Will Lisa Wilkinson be around exhibiting her new works blowing us all away with their powerful, original insights into people and society in 5 or 10 years time?

  2. Thanks, as always, for giving us wonderful, colourful writing, Helen (also lovingly known as the mean little bitch who doles it out)

  3. From the camera company responsible for inflicting the world with the creative photographic genius of national karaoke champ Guy Sebastian (who can forget that heart wrenching image of a homeless man in LA?) BUY NIKON!!! (or Sony if you’re after a compact!)

  4. If pollies can have free overseas jollies on the pre text of “research” and not be pulled up, then Helen can have free grog on the pre text of artistic review – go girl (is that last bit demeaning – or should I have said “go you empowered supreme being”??).

  5. Razer vs Wilkinson. Why does everything have to be so adversarial? We get enough of it with our school boy politics. It’s really, really boring. The publication and you can do better.

  6. Dear Helen
    Not seen the work. But a review by someone who is not an art reviewer of photos by a journalist who is not a photographer seems to be of it’s time really. After all everyone wants to jump in at the top, sponsor and gallery in hand, who needs to study? Afterall we have already been told it is a lifestyle choice. So the sooner such activity is moved safely into hobby-ism the better. Our Government is keen on destroying some of our most succeesful industries, the arts employ more people and are a greater part of the GDP than agriculture. Another industry the current government of neocons is keen to flog off…for naming or jobs for themselves and family in the future. This is all a part of the same view. :)
    Sorry I am an artist…just raved…you know we are not good with words…unlike journalists? Who are not very good with images it seems.

    1. If only I had admitted this shortcoming and asked some collectors of many years’ experience along on the advice of a curator!
      Arts may employ more people than agriculture, as the popular slogan has it, but who it fails to employ are specialty arts reviewers. Given that this is the single online publication in the nation entirely devoted to arts, I guess that’s not surprising.
      I’m aware that I’m a generalist, hardly qualified to review tv, let alone high visual culture. This is why I always bring in experts when I’m reviewing well outside my zone. Could you tell me what I left out in this review, based on others’ expertise, so I don’t make the same mistake again?
      As for the problem of writers rarely being also visual artists. How do you suppose that could ever be resolved?

      1. You gave reasoned and valid opinions which were informed by the experts you consulted. Job done.

        I suspect Olive Cotton would have agreed…..and thank whatever higher entity preferred, that you spoke against cheap, self-indulgent faux-art and therefore in favour of the work that actually elevates us.

    2. Yeah okay, so let’s only have artists and qualified art critics reporting on art. That’s really going to help gain appreciation in the wider community. Lost up an arts hole are we?

      1. Now I can’t stop thinking about that Mapplethorpe fisting photo I saw in a gallery years ago and now I’m going to have a happy day chuckling to myself as I think about art all thanks to “a review by someone who is not an art reviewer of photos by a journalist who is not a photographer”.

      2. No. I think the point that there are those more qualified to review than others is a valid one. Although I have reviewed screen and live performance for many years over hundreds of thousands of published words, it’s true that I am no visual arts expert.
        So, it’s a valid thing to hope for such expertise. But what must be considered is the real life background to such a hope.
        As I mentioned, Daily Review is the only online publication in the nation entirely devoted to arts review and discussion. It is a small organisation, privately owned. It is simply not possible in such a publication and in a time of such limited revenue to retain expert reviewers. The sad thing is, this expertise is simply not being renewed.
        What arts journalists need to do, for both survival and ethical reasons, is become generalists. I know this is not ideal and it would have been great if we could have sent a true critic of the art form to this show. But, we can’t. I am keenly aware of this problem for readers. So, what I did was seek the (unpaid) assistance of experts.
        I do not, for a moment, consider myself equipped to talk to the topic of portraiture. But, I do think when a popular person makes an effort to add to that tradition that this merits some critique. I do think I’m qualified to talk about what such advances mean in terms of the popular culture. Questions like “is diversity a new quality that prevents all critique?” and “what are the emerging relationships between celebrities and brands?” are interesting ones to ask here. Also interesting, of course, is how specific traditions of visual art are used in that context. Again, I did the only thing I could in such an era and asked some true connoisseurs for advice and those parts of the review that addressed the images themselves were the result of many hours of conversation and written exchange.
        Mostly, I want to make the point that I agree that arts review is in trouble. Like much journalism. But I also want to make the case that at Daily Review, we work hard to amend that gap. This was not a case of me thinking “Well I guess I can review photographs, why not?”It was very much an admission that I can’t, but that when I am writing for this publication, which is led by an arts editor of many years experience, I will do what I can to maintain faltering expertise by recourse to research.
        Sorry to go on, but I am cheesed by the implication that me, or anyone else here, is not aware of their responsibility to arts and review. I am far too old to think that I know everything and that I can just give everything a go, so I don’t. I stick within the limits of my knowledge, and bring others in when it’s needed.

        1. So how does your article on the UN Wonder Woman thing fit within your definition of this website being entirely devoted to art? Or for that matter a review of TV cooking/chat shows? I’m just a consumer here so far be it for me to try to define what this website is supposed to be about. I really couldn’t care less.

          I don’t know much about art but I know what I like. I like reading Helen Razer articles. That’s the only reason I scan this site. Consequently I get exposed to the other stuff, you know, like people whinging about what’s on the ABC, black female thespians whinging about how the white middle class supporters of the theater are mostly interested in tales about people like them, blah blah blah.

          Responsibility to arts and review? Puck that shiz. Ha, oh the irony as I stop myself from expressing to Razer my neoliberal attitude to the arts!

          Whatever. Self proclamed artist #doclisa’s rant reeks of the kind of self important hubris that turns working class shlobs like me into enemies of the arts. Well, not me really, but those other sweaty dudes? Be afraid, be very afraid.

          Jeez, thanks Helen for going all serious on us. You totally killed my buzz.

  7. An unusually restrained review, though I detected moments that required great control.
    I have a couple of thoughts, firstly for the poor, and I mean that in both an empathetic manner and an economic one, photographic artists that would love to have had that opportunity.
    And secondly some of these “journalists” if that’s the right word seem to live in a perpendicular world where they intersect with the rest of us as little as possible, and in the meantime are busy disappearing up there own arses.

  8. I hesitate to participate in this conversation, not because I fear criticism (far from it) but because life is short…

    Yet, here I find myself, noting that the link that purports to lead to evidence of Paltrow’s endorsement of the “women should be beyond criticism” perspective instead leads to a somewhat thoughtful exploration of the struggle women have, and have had, with criticism, with each other as competitors rather than colleagues, and with distinguishing the ad hominem from the on point.

    This struggle is real.

    And the fact that it is a real struggle for so many women does not mean that women are beyond criticism, that they should not engage in critique of each other’s work, that critical reasoning should be suspended when interacting with women. It means the opposite.

    It means that critique should be about the work, about the ideas, about what’s actually going on, not about what is irrelevant and superficial. Essentially, it’s about saying no to the idea that women should be critiqued in terms of their adherence to gender norms, whether that is expressed in terms of women as objects of sexual desire or in terms of women as agents of social conformity.

    And the critique given here really does engage with the ideas of the exhibition: what does it mean to have a non-professional photographer create an exhibition presented in a professional art gallery narrative? what do {celebrity + the socio-demographics of celebrity} have t0 say about {celebrity + the socio-demographics of celebrity}? who is on the inside of such a photographic conversation/who is excluded? is expertise a commercial disadvantage in the 21st century?

    There’s no benefit in misrepresenting an exploration of ways in which women have struggled to engage critically with each other (the link to Paltrow’s newsletter) in this critique of the Women of Influence photographic project, and the critique would be stronger without it.

    1. Everyone gets criticised the moment they raise their heads above the parapet. Male or female; it makes no difference to the level of negativity or vitriol.
      Helen was criticising the photographs for their derivative and artless lack of insight. They have been parachuted into a prominence from a greater height which has not been earned through a portfolio of works over time or any extraordinary works now warranting such attention.

      Focussing primarily on the artistic merit of the pictures is the only way to determine artistic and social relevance. Reference Olive Cotton and Diane Arbus for starters.

  9. Dear Helen:

    Marry me! Marry me! I’m sure my wife wouldn’t mind!

    I think I’ve sussed you critique this time. Lisa is married to Peter Fitz What’s-his-name. And he’s a bloody big unit! Big enough to make Breton farm boys who were
    literally two outback toilets wide, say “Merci” and they weren’t saying “thank you!”
    (Grinning, here.)

    I cannot express an opinion concerning the photography, per se, as I’m not in Melbourne. From what you’ve said, it was a good effort. Ms Wilkinson is perhaps a prisoner of her fame. Often, sponsors lean heavily on artists and money talks.

  10. Excellent review, Helen. I’m emailing Canon now to request some sponsorship for me. My exhibition will feature my mate West who is an artist, filmmaker and skateboarder.. and any other folks I can persuade to sit for me :) Unfortunately, I may be waiting a bit before Canon gets back to me…anyway thanks Lisa for exhibiting and thanks Helen for reviewing :)

  11. i think the casting of subjects was so deliberate to be the greatest irritant. find a bloody ward clerk at a district hospital FFS . you can forgive a lapse in depth of field but a cliched casting is a greater horror. Mia Friedman needs a sabbatical. Or do we all need a sabbatical from Mia Freedman.

    1. All women, as all men, need critics and criticism. I hope Lisa can read this and improve her photos for the next exhibition because we all need more than one reason to be in melbourne for Cup Week. Go Helen.

  12. Oh god, the ugly spectre of ‘women can’t criticise women’. How dreadful this now hangs over us. I hate hate hate that notion and I’m a woman. I welcome criticism of my work or my person or whatever. This don’t criticise women thing is unhelpful in too many ways to unpack here. UGH.

    Also too frequent, too awful and not really women-friendly: WHITE. WHYYYYY WHITE. I am a girly girl and white is the devil. White is smug. White is saying ‘I’m better than you, I don’t accidentally touch my nose which has foundation on it then pull my sleeves down, thus getting orange on my white sleeve for all to see.’. White says – bow before me, inferiors who don’t dryclean. UGH

    Also most of those women photographed are not only uninspiring they are enemies of women (hi Mia Freedman!). But good job trying to be nice in your review because Lisa Wilkinson actually seems like a decent person who doesn’t regularly commit crimes against women in her journalism.

    1. Agree wholeheartedly Ribbons.

      Nice review Helen, particularly taken with the commentary about diversity, being as diverse as hugely marketable and highly successful women. Hugely diverse power women?

      I imagine that the post-feminist era will not feature any women-only exhibitions, just as they wouldn’t feature any men-only exhibitions, and people will not have to think twice about criticising a person who also happens to be a woman and worrying about whether it is a critique of all womanhood and an example of the flagrant patriarchy, etc etc.

      I’m just much less interested in the posed and powerful than I am in the real life.

      And all in white, I don’t know what that means as I am a mere male, incapable of understanding all of the context that is imagined in that colour. The thought that a particular colour is the current preferred power shade suggests to me more examples of women undermining other women by secret codes of which colour is ‘in’, or not, and I find that as scary and totalitarian as any Aldous Huxley novel.

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