PORTRAIT OF GRANDMOTHER: Winning photographer Justine Varga and 2017 judge Dr Shaune Lakin with overall prizewinning portrait, Maternal Line.
PORTRAIT OF GRANDMOTHER: Winning photographer Justine Varga and 2017 judge Dr Shaune Lakin with overall prizewinning portrait, Maternal Line. Contributed

Scrawls and spit win top portrait prize

THE Tweed grabbed global headlines this week as art critics took a swipe at the appointed winner of the 2017 Olive Cotton Award.

The winning entry was announced at the Tweed Regional Art Gallery in Murwillumbah on Saturday, with Sydney photographer Justine Varga taking top honours, and $20,000 in prize money, for her work Maternal Line.

The controversial entry - described as "a series of scrawls" by this year's judge, Dr Shaune Lakin - was selected from the work of 72 finalists, in what is dubbed Australia's top photographic portrait awards.

The winning portrait is of the artist's grandmother but does not feature her face. Instead Ms Varga placed her grandmother's pen scrawls and streaks of saliva onto film before blowing it up to create her work.

Dr Lakin, senior curator of the National Gallery of Australia, said he had agonised for hours over his decision.

"It's a very complex photographic portrait; it made me think a lot about the act of the making of a portrait - about what it means today to make a photograph of someone else, even if in the end it doesn't reveal what they look like," he said.

But his choice has been widely debated in arts circles, attracting attention from as far away as the BBC under the headline 'Spitting image - can drool be art?' (in which Arts Editor Will Gompertz concludes "I like it"), to the Sydney Morning Herald which splashed it across its front page on Wednesday.

 

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Anne Zahalka, The Papapetrou Family 2017, was the Director's Choice.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Anne Zahalka, The Papapetrou Family 2017, was the Director's Choice. allison rose

The decision has sparked a deluge of hate mail to Dr Lakin.

"I have received lots of hate mail actually, which has been actually really kind of disturbing," Dr Lakin told ABC North Coast.

"It really does diminish what, for me, was a very complicated and complex process that I took very seriously and it was about the pictures and it was about the photography.

"I have received really nasty feedback from photographers, but a lot of vitriolic commentary that has come back to me has suggested that the decision was really just about creating controversy. It disrespects a gifted artist, it really does diminish what was a really complicated process and it was about the picture and photographs."

Dr Lakin said he had no doubt about the definition of 'portrait'.

"In the end, I went with this photograph because I was convinced it had an emotional power I rarely see in photographs," he said.

"I was also quite convinced it was a portrait and a portrait that speaks about portraiture today."

Tweed Gallery curator and collections manager Ingrid Hedgcock said the announcement had generated strong interest from the public, and she expected more visitors to view the exhibition.

"The announcement has generated much interest and a broad range of responses - from being wholeheartedly supportive, through to vitriolic," Ms Hedgcock said.

"The winning work has generated discussion and debate, which, when you reflect on the history of art prizes, is not a new thing.

"It's an opportunity to reinvigorate the way people think about photographic processes, portraiture and the relationship between the artist and subject. Art prizes generally have a reputation for arousing controversy and debate."

The exhibition continues until October 8 after which People's Choice votes will be tallied.

A full list of finalists is available on the Gallery's website at http://artgallery.tweed.nsw.gov.au/PrizesAndAwards/OliveCotton.

* For further information, visit http://artgallery.tweed.nsw.gov.au or phone the Gallery on (02) 6670 2790. The Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre is open Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm.

 


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