It was a case of fourth-time lucky for Sydney artist Tony Costa, who last week was named the winner of the $100,000 Archibald Prize for his portrait Lindy Lee, of fellow Sydney artist.
But even with that large prize-money amount the Archibald – first awarded in 1921 – isn’t Australia’s richest art prize. That gong goes to the annual Doug Moran National Portrait Prize, worth $150,000. Still, the annual Art Gallery of NSW competition is the most high profile.
Representatives from seemingly every Sydney media outlet turned out to hear AGNSW board of trustees president David Gonski name Costa the winner of the 98th Archibald prize.
A finalist in the 2015, 2017 and 2018 Archibald competitions, Costa says he took just two days to paint his oil on canvas portrait of Lee, whose own practice explores her Chinese ancestry through the philosophies of Taoism and Zen Buddhism. He has captured her, eyes closed, in deep meditative contemplation.
Although Costa was familiar with Lee’s work he found himself drawn to her ideas when he heard an interview she gave at the AGNSW. “I was attracted to her wisdom, humility, courage, humour and, above all, her deep focus regarding her art practice.
“The most important thing in my work is feeling, over and above accuracy,” says Costa, whose depiction of Lee gives the impression she’s floating, a response to the “weightlessness” she describes feeling while meditating.
In accepting his award, the figurative expressionist painter paid tribute to his late mother for her unwavering support of his decision to pursuing art. “She said, ‘follow your heart’ which was the best advice I ever got, although I thought she said, ‘follow your art’,” he added.
While the Archibald gets all the attention, the Wynne (first awarded in 1897 for the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours) and Sulman prizes (for subject painting, genre painting or mural project) were also announced.
And among the three competitions there were a number of milestones. Nineteen of the 107 finalists were Aboriginal artists – 15 in the Wynne, three in the Archibald and one in the Sulman,– and there were eight portraits of Indigenous Australians among the Archibald finalists, the most on record.
There were also more women artists then ever before among the record 2176 entries, and more keen young painters, with a record 2100 entries for the Young Archie competition, which will be judged in August.
The Archibald and Wynne prizes are judged by the AGNSW board of trustees, including board vice president Gretel Packer, artist Ben Quilty and newcomer and former Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti. The judges gather early on the morning of the announcement to make their final decision.
“Judging the Wynne and the Archibald isn’t exactly an easy job,” says Gonski, who has now judged 14 Archibald and Wynne prizes. “We all fought this morning and I’m hiding the scars because it wouldn’t look good on television.”
This year’s 51 Archibald finalists included Prudence Flint, Jun Chen, Imants Tillers, Vincent Namatjira and 2015 Wynne winner Natasha Bieniek. Twelve of them are first-time finalists.
Among the Archibald finalists are portraits of 17 artists and 11 self-portraits. Some of the public figures depicted are Indigenous actors Nakkiah Lui and Madeleine Madden, Paralympic gold medallist and radio host Dylan Alcott, media personalities Faustina Agolley and Benjamin Law, and singer Megan Washington.
The Wynne prize continued a four-year trend in acknowledging the extraordinary art coming out of the APY lands in remote South Australia, with Indigenous artist Sylvia Ken earning the $50,000 award for her painting, Seven Sisters.
“I paint the story of my country – the Seven Sisters story. This story is important for me and for so many women across the APY lands,” says Ken, whose family are traditional owners for significant sites of the Seven Sisters story.
The Sulman prize for subject painting, genre painting or mural project was awarded to McLean Edwards for his work The first girl that knocked on his door. Edwards said about his $40,000 prize, “It’s very difficult to have a career in art, especially if you’re described variously as ‘idiosyncratic’ or ‘peculiar’ and that’s what my paintings are, so it’s made it even sweeter today to collect this cheque.”
This year the AGNSW trustees awarded a highly commended honour to Archibald finalist Jude Rae for her portrait of actor Sarah Peirse as Miss Docker in Patrick White’s play A Cheery Soul for Sydney Theatre Company in 2018, and a highly commended to Wynne finalist Natasha Bieniek for her landscape painting Reflection. Bieniek is also an Archibald finalist with her self-portrait while heavily pregnant titled Waiting for Arden.
The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes are on display at the Art Gallery of NSW until September 8 when they tour regionally. Various free public programs will be held in conjunction with the exhibition.