The Archibald Prize

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Oil’s well with Dave at the ARCHIBALDS

Archibald1>> Sydney artist ISABELLA McGREGOR has imortalised Dave Warner on canvas for the 2003 Archibald Prize, Australia’s most extraordinary art event. First awarded in 1921, the Archibald — today worth $35,000 to the winner — attracts hundreds of entries each year.

This entry is a first for both Isabella and Dave, as both artist and subject. To qualfy for an Archibald portait, the subject must have made a significant contribution in the fields of Arts, Letters or Science. Isabella said Dave was an obvious choice and she was surprised no-one had painted him before. Dave said he was flattered to be asked, although he found sitting still long enough for the initial sketches was quite a chore!


Writer CAMILLE SCAYSBROOK speaks to Isabella McGregor about art, fashion, dreams and the last-minute rush.

Isabella McGregor has just made an interesting discovery. It’s weeks, not months, until her entry for the Archibald Prize is due. As her boyfriend hunches over the computer, rushing to confirm this fact, a large canvas dominated by a glistening blue branch dries on the kitchen table. Several other canvases tilt on paint-splattered ground-cloths amongst hurriedly packed boxes. With a solo exhibition due to start in less than a week, a house to pack up and a year-long working holiday in Europe imminent, this probably isn’t the sort of news she wants to hear, but she shrugs. “It’s OK. I paint fast.” McGregor does much to dispel the dull cliché of artist as dole-bludging dreamer. “Almost the opposite!” she argues. “I need sleep!”. She brings out a finished study of her intended subject, musician and writer Dave Warner. Was he a tricky subject? Hardly. “I just set him up on the computer. I wanted to capture the writer in a writing position.” McGregor says. Instantly, her take becomes clear — an invisible keyboard hovers just outside the picture plane.

It’s a compelling idea, and promises to be even more so once transferred to the large canvas sitting in her bedroom. Appropriately, McGregor places her artistic genesis at a butterfly drawn at age three.

archibald2Today, round-eyed women flutter through her moonlight-speckled worlds, delicate and distant. If Norman Lindsay had been born in Japan and gone into cahoots with cartoonist Katsuhiro Otomo, this is what he might have been producing.

The comparison is pertinent, as animation is just one of the many artforms McGregor has pursued over the years. Six months in the fashion industry left her unimpressed (`I just couldn’t stand what that industry does to people’), and after a stint in graphic design, a year’s sabbatical in her ancestral homeland of Scotland, she’s now a student of the Sydney College of the Arts — and a possible candidate for Australia’s most famous art prize.

Why the Archibalds? For a start, it’s Australia’s richest art prize, although McGregor concedes that a depressingly large portion of the $35,000 prize would be sacrificed to the great god of HECs. It’s also the best known; the sort of exhibition that draws crowds who are more likely to take in a night at the football rather than a visit to the art gallery any other time of the year. Pragmatically, she adds: “It’s non acquisitive. Even if you don’t win, you’ve got your painting.” Even at the grand old age of 82, the Archibalds still manage to inspire controversy. The mainstream popularity of the prize has led to accusations of mediocrity, claims McGregor dismisses as snobbery. Sadly, in an industry as competitive as this, many believe they may only scramble to the top by stepping on one anothers’ toes.

“There’s a huge disrespect among artists, especially in Australia. It’s an industry that doesn’t respect itself. In Scotland, people sell their paintings in pubs. People hear you’re an artist and they come up and say ‘Hey, I caught a really big fish today. Could you come over and paint it?’ There’s this perception that there’s a circle of artists who always win the Archibalds. But last year, someone who went to my school won. There’s still opportunities for everyone.” Archibald entries are judged anonymously, meaning that an unknown who stands out from the pack may well gain their big break. However, selection is more competitive than ever, last year’s competition attracting a record 751 entries. For those who miss out, a number of alternate exhibitions have sprung up, the best known of which is S.H. Ervin Gallery’s Salon des Refuses.

In grand Parisian tradition, it’s almost as well attended as its rival. So what can a young artist looking to make a living expect? Poverty, discouragement and narrowed options? Not at all. “It’s the opposite,” says McGregor. “I’m amazed at the opportunities.” Apart from putting the last touches on the works for her exhibition (FORN, Glebe Public Library from March 3) she works as a concept illustrator at an architectural firm. Her latest commission is — appropriately enough — for the cover of Warner’s latest script.

The Archibald Prize offers the general public a rare point of access into an area that is often all too happy to present itself as intellectual, inscrutable, and elite. In a world of Tracy Emins and Damien Hirsts, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that the main function of art was once to record and to entertain. After all, it’s often the winner of the People’s Choice — such as Paul Newton’s popular double portrait of television personalities Roy and H.G. in 2001 — that linger in the public’s mind longer than the Archibald’s official winner. This is where McGregor would like to see the art world move — off the walls of the gallery and into our public spaces. This makes her venue an ideal fit. “One of my workmates asked if I thought it [Glebe Public Library] was demeaning to use as a venue. Not at all — it’s the best place for my art. It’s all about fairytales and dreams.”

Sure enough, the ethereal quality of her works bring to mind half-remembered childhood stories, lending them an almost narrative quality. McGregor hopes to hold exhibitions while overseas. “It’s part of becoming a reknown artist, having exhibitions overseas” she says with a trace of irony. The cultural cringe is still alive and well in the visual arts. If all of Sydney’s young artists had this sort of drive, who knows? One day, our parents might be talking us out of accounting and into art.