Winner of the 2014 Archibald Prize, Fiona Lowry with her subject, Penelope Seidler, at the NSW Art Gallery in Sydney. Photo: Janie Barrett
Picking the Archibald winner was almost too easy this year. As soon as one walks into the central gallery of the exhibition, Fiona Lowry’s striking portrait of Penelope Seidler virtually announces: “Here I am!”
If further confirmation were required, it’s worth remembering that she was pronounced the unofficial runner-up last year, with a bilious green portrait of Shaun Gladwell. If the Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW liked that picture, they must have been ecstatic about this year’s entry in tasteful shades of grey.
2014 Archibald Prize finalists
Fiona Lowry, 'Penelope Seidler'. Photo: Supplied
Lowry has enjoyed a run of success in local art prizes during the past few years and the Archibald is the jewel in her tiara. Ben Quilty was on the panel that gave her the Doug Moran Prize in 2008 and is now a Trustee at the AGNSW. We may assume he is a fan.
The award continues the trend for giving the prize to artists who might be characterised as young and fashionable, if no longer “emerging”. Del Kathryn Barton, Guy Maestri and Quilty himself have played this role in the past.
The Seidler portrait is arguably Lowry’s most assured and skilful painting to date. It captures an excellent likeness, which is no mean feat when you are painting with an airbrush. Although the image owes a debt to photography, it is not so intrusive as to spoil the overall effect.
Lowry’s growing popularity with private and public collectors is partly due to the edginess of her subject matter. Her work is full of suggestions of sex and violence in the great outdoors.
She won the Doug Moran with a nude self-portrait set in Belanglo State Forest, scene of Ivan Milat’s backpacker killings. With most of Lowry’s works it seems that people are being molested or murdered. Despite the Gothic overtones of these paintings, the tonality is as bright as an overexposed photograph.
In her prize-winning portrait, Lowry has allowed Penelope Seidler to stand around without threat of personal violence, although there is still a slightly sinister feeling about the grey, misty backdrop. Perhaps the ghosts of old Archibald favourites such as W.B. McInnes and William Dargie are lurking in the bushes, appalled by the decadence into which the prize has fallen.
John McDonald is the SMH’s art critic