The Ramsay Art Prize is Australia’s newest art competition. As the ‘Introduction’ to Ramsay Art Prize states, it is named after James and Diana Ramsay, South Australia’s ‘leading cultural philanthropists’, and aims to share their passion for art and ‘inspire generation after generation of art lovers. Open to Australian artists under 40 working in whatever material or process, the Ramsay Art Prize is awarded to one of the exhibiting finalists’. With a prize of $100,000 it is now Australia’s richest art prize. There is also a $15.000 award for the artist who wins a popular ‘People’s Choice’, ‘generously supported by Lipman Karas’. 2017 is the inaugural year for the Ramsay Art Prize and the winners of both awards, as well as other finalists is currently on exhibition at the South Australian Art Gallery. As the ‘Introduction’ further states, ‘The inaugural finalists exhibiting here have been chosen from more than 400 artists. Selected by a panel of judges, they come from across the country, representing diverse cultures and art making practices, from the moving image to intricate works on paper’. The following photos are of the finalists, as well as the two winners, and gives a hint of the marvelous work currently on display.
REBECCA SELLECK – Lapin Plague – Canberra, Australian Capitol Territory (2016)
Rebecca Selleck’ Lapin Plague is made of found objects including chairs, carpet, synthetic stuffing and rabbit fur coats. As the card accompanying and describing the work states, ‘Rebecca Selleck blurs the boundaries between pest, product and friend in this installation. Viewers are invited to enter the constructed space and interact with forms that are soft, warm, and made from found rabbit-fur coats’. Rebecca Selleck is quoted as stating, ‘Since I was a small child I’ve been entranced by the inconsistent relationships humans have with other animals. We can easily empathise with them on the one hand, but disengage on the other, denying them agency and treating them as objects’. Fair enough, however, when I visited the exhibition, neither I nor other patrons took up the invitation to ‘enter the installation’; in fact it was rather avoided once it was realised it was partly made of real rabbit fur coats. Does this mean that the work has partially failed in its intention? Possibly – but as artwork of ‘protest’, it’s repellant nature could also be regarded as successfully making its point.
ASH KEATING – Gravity System Response #28 (Polyptych) – Melbourne, Victoria (2016)
Ash Keating’s large ‘polyptych’ is as beautiful as it is impressive. As the accompanying card states, ‘Using airless spray to layer large quantities paint on monumental surfaces, Ash Keating enlists gravity as his studio assistant. This intensely physical process is impulsive, unpredictable and is also underpinned by his interest in social and environmental issues. These include climate change, urban sprawl and gentrification, as well as waste and sustainability’. Whilst the respective ‘social and environmental issues’, important as they are, somewhat escaped me, nonetheless, I really loved this artwork. In a way, based on its appearance and manner of creation it was, to me, as if Mark Rothko had met Jackson Pollack, as the influence of both wonderful American artists seemed apparent in this terrific work.
NATALYA HUGHES – All of Your Women and Some of Mine – Sydney, New South Wales (2016)
Natayla Hughes’ all encompassing artwork is as challenging and provocative as it is vibrant. It is described as ‘drawing attention to the role women play in the rhetoric of modernism as subservient objects of desire, removed from the reality of their individual bodies and experiences. Through excessive patterning and ornament, Hughes creates a counter canon – one that is feminised, decorative, gendered and embodied’. The socio-political intention behind the work was not initially clear to me. I was drawn to the vibrancy of the colours, the intricate patterning, and the accessibility in being able to stand within this confined, prison-like room. It was Matisse meeting ‘Pop Art’ meeting victim-orientated feminism. I admit that I am not fully cognizant in regard to the role women play in the rhetoric of modernism’. I enjoyed the challenge. However, dismemberment and distortion is not necessarily appealing to me on any level. Nonetheless, I do respect the intention behind the work, even though I may not fully appreciate and understand it. I just loved the vibrancy and all encompassing nature of the work.
OWEN LEONG – Sankapala – Sydney, New South Wales (2016)
Owen Leong’s startling self-portrait is an archival pigment print on cotton paper. It ‘visualises energy meridians as a form of armour or exoskeleton that emanates from the mind and yet is anchored in the body. This work takes its name from the Sanskrit word ‘Sankapala’ which means an idea formed in the heart or mind’. Like other works I found this work impressive, challenging and thought provoking. There is a fascinating mystery inherent in this work in its harsh photographic realism and connection with religious art. The visualisation of ‘energy meridians as form of armour or exoskeleton’ reminded me of being similar to a halo or aura. I loved the thoughtfulness of the mystery of cognizant thinking, defensive, ‘armoured’ as well as meditative, as well as the personal physical vulnerability that the artist reveals of himself in this work.
TONY ALBERT – Exotica (Mid Century Modern) – Yogyakarta, Indonesia (2016)
Tony Albert is from the indigenous Girramay/Kuku Yalandji people in North Queensland. As stated, ‘Tony Albert’s personal collection of souvenirs referencing aboriginal culture has been put to work in this installation to question how we understand, imagine and construct difference’. Tony Albert’s is quoted – ‘When I was young, the media was barren of Aboriginal imagery…so when I saw these images of black people, mostly in second-hand shops, I really related. Only later did I appreciate them on a political level’. When I first read this description and viewed the work this I initially giggled. It is funny, in a self-deprecating way, as well as cringe making. It is a terrific piece of satiric art. It may not be clear in this photo, but the smaller squares are ash-trays full of cigarettes – it is so deliciously kitsch. It harkens back to a kind of ‘noble savage’ iconography and imagery from past centuries, undercut by the cigarette filled dirty ashtrays; both of which are still readily available in first-hand and second-hand tourist shops around the country. The only item missing is the obligatory tea-towel. ‘Exotica’? – OMG! Hilarious! And thank heaven I don’t possess, nor have ever owned, any such ‘exotica’.
TRENT JANSEN – Pankalangu Wardrobe – Wollongong, New South Wales (2016)
The sense of indigenous ‘exotica’ continues with Trent Jansen’s fantastic Pankalangu Wardrobe. The ‘Pankalangu’ is a mythical indigenous creature from the Western Arrente region surrounding Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. ‘While in Alice Springs Trent Jansen was introduced to Western Arrente elder Baden Williams, and the pair bonded over Williams’ accounts of Western Arrente creatures. The pankalungu is a territorial being that lives in the scrub, completely camouflaged in its environment, moving only with the rain and made visible when rain droplets illuminate its body’. In an article in The Conversation (14 November, 2014) Trent Jansen wrote about his fascination with indigenous mythical creatures, and being non-indigenous how he has received a certain amount of flack and criticism from including such creatures as the pankalungu in his work. Jansen concern is with ‘crossing the line’ between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures. He references the Australian author Robert Holden who stated that ‘fear of creatures like these became a common ground between Aboriginal people and British settlers, and these stories were a point of conversation between individuals from both cultures, a catalyst for personal connections’. Despite angering certain bodies who have accused him of being a ‘carpet-bagger’ and of ‘using these culturally sensitive stories for my own benefit’, Jansen justifies his use of indigenous mythic creatures – ‘I hope these narratives will once again become part of the common myths associated with Australian identity, perpetuating an identity that is inclusive of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous culture’. He is, however, very aware of the division between the two cultures – ‘Perhaps this is not my line to cross, but then whose line is it to cross? Individuals from one side or the other must be the first to act. Is this a division that I want to perpetuate through inaction? Or is this a line that I can help to dissolve?…If I can share this love and fascination with my audience, perhaps they can cross this cultural line with me.’ I agree and support Jansen. He quotes indigenous visual art historian Greg Lehman –
White Australians cannot continue to place Aboriginal culture on a shelf, afraid to touch it. This only cements the divide that already exists between white and Indigenous Australians. It is important for people from all backgrounds – artists, musicians, designers etc. to respectfully take Aboriginal culture into their own expressions of culture, and communicate these ideas to new audiences.
Jansen concludes – ‘Only then will this divide begin to disintegrate and only then will Aboriginal culture be loved and embraced by the mainstream’. It is a bold and brave goal, but one that must be attempted, despite the criticism and resistance from both sides.
KEG DE SOUZA – We Built this City – Sydney, New South Wales (2016)
Keg de Souza’s We Built this City is the largest installation in the exhibition – and my personal favourite. It is a ‘reading room’ that you can enter and is made of salvaged tents, plaid laundry bags, discussions, and publications. The accompanying card states, ‘The materiality of Keg de Souza’s work serves as a metaphor for displacement at a time of increasingly global upheaval and instability. Having spent time squatting de Souza believes that tent cities can reveal places of protest, informal economies, self-management, self-education, direct democracy, resourcefulness and tolerance, and in doing so function as sites of resilience and resistance’. Whilst acknowledging that this installation was inside the relative safety of an art gallery and not subject to the variants of weather and climate, nonetheless, it was very comfortable inside. I love installation art when it is immersive and all encompassing.
JULIE FRAGAR – Goose Chase: All of Us Together Here and Now – Brisbane, Queensland (2016)
Julie Fragar’s Goose Chase: All of Us Together Here and Now is the ‘People’s Choice’ award winner. It is a stunning multi-layered and deeply personal work. ‘Julie Fragar made this painting after her trip to the Azores islands in Portugal in search of her ancestor Antonio de Fraga. Leaving Portugal in 1850 on an American whaling ship at the age of twelve de Fragar was twice shipwrecked. The artist’s two children who were roughly de Fraga’s age when he left Portugal are momentarily united with him in the fictional space of the painting’.
SARAH CONTOS – Sarah Contos Presents: The Long Kiss Goodbye – Alexandria, New South Wales (2016)
Sarah Contos is the inaugural winner of the Ramsay Art Prize with her autobiographical work. It is a large quilt made of numerous items, including – screen prints on linen, canvas, and larme, digital printed fabrics, various found fabrics, PVC, polyfil, glass, ceramics, plastic beads, thread, and the artist’s gloves. ‘This colossal quilt brings together the personal remnants of Sarah Contos’ practice from the last four years, resulting in her most ambitious work to date. Previous works of art and exhibition histories are captured in this textile, making it a self-initiated retrospective of the artist’s career’. It is an extraordinary work, and whilst challenged I was not as moved or provoked as I was by other works in this exhibition. This is probably due to being relatively unfamiliar with Sarah Contos previous work, or as knowledgeable about her career and artwork as the judges. However, everyone is free to make up their own minds and every work of art is met in the given circumstance and immediate moment of time and place as well as emotional and psychological state.
Generally, I dislike art of any kind being reduced to some form of competition. The worst examples are those found on TV variety shows involving popular songs by untrained and inexperienced singers. The lure of fame, fortune and celebrity, and other variations of greed and vanity is to me anti-art, and sets up false and phony expectations that can only lead to depressing consequences. However, awards and prizes are an unfortunate necessity, particularly in the art world where too many artists exist and work on the poverty line and without any public and peer recognition. As such the Ramsay Art Prize is welcome. Furthermore, art prizes and award competitions such as the Archibald and Wynne Prize, as well as now the Ramsay Art Prize, do attract some of the very best works by contemporary artists. The choice of finalists, the winners, as well as other works, always tend to attract some form of controversy and discourse. This is a good thing. Like theatre and film festivals the respective works should be provocative and challenging. This is the case with the inaugural Ramsay Art Prize. Not having seen the other 400 odd other works we are dependent upon the judges choices, which is dictated by their own experiences, knowledge, tastes and prejudices. The works that I have selected to highlight also reveals my own; as Oscar Wilde noted about any form of criticism of art, that it often reveals more of the critic than the work of art. I accept this. I do hope, however, that this article will stimulate interest, encouraging those in Adelaide to go and see this exhibition, as well as general interest in Australian contemporary art.