Not so many eyes on this prize

The Waterhouse still punches below its weight, Sasha Grishin writes

The Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize 2012 winning and highly commended works will be exhibited at the National Archives on Queen Victoria Terrace, Parkes, until November 11.

This is the 10th Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize and despite a prize pool of more than $100,000 and wide publicity, it remains a somewhat lacklustre annual exhibition that examines the interface between nature and science.

One would imagine that a show that has as its main theme the natural environment, a rich prize purse, and the prestige of two venues - Adelaide and Canberra - would have artists queuing to enter. Alas, judging by this exhibition of finalists, it must be a very short queue that has not attracted many of the more accomplished artists in Australia. Although it is always fashionable when it comes to art prizes to blame the judges, this one had anywhere between five and 10 judges, depending whether you believe their website or the printed catalogue, the field from which the selection was made cannot have been particularly impressive.

The overall prize winner is an Indigenous artist from the Northern Territory, Margaret Loy Pula, with her painting Anatye (Bush Potato). This is a credible choice, rather than outstanding work of art. She is the daughter of Kathleen Petyarre and the mother of Abie Loy Kemarre, who in her own work produces very competent, rather than outstanding paintings. This bush potato, a subject which commands almost a monopoly in her art, is very finely articulated with a spreading, almost spider web-like detail of line. Colour is subtle and beautifully controlled.

Richard Dunlop's painting, Freshwater Eel (Colonial Style), is possibly the most accomplished painting in the show and was awarded the Painting Prize. It is a very refined piece of painting on a largish scale and commands a presence. The strangeness of the creature and the play with conventions of 19th-century zoological illustration gives the work a slightly surreal feel.

The outstanding piece in the show is by a Tasmanian artist, Helen Wright, her The Exquisite Corpse of Seaweed Man. The exquisite corpse, also known as exquisite cadaver, was a strategy invented by the surrealists whereby folding bits of paper artists would add their own design to an existing drawing which is concealed from them and hence leading to a startling and unexpected juxtaposition of imagery. Wright's large relief print re-examines a strangely truncated world where a modern-day Venus is born out of the sea foam. She notes about the piece that it ''continues my fascination with the strange and mysterious aspects of the natural world. I have utilised my collection of seaweeds from the Tamar River in Tasmania and a surrealist approach to juxtaposing images.'' It is a human-size figure, 172 centimetres high ,which emerges out of a maze of textures. For this she was awarded the second prize for the Works of Paper section. I think that the committee of judges could have been a little bit more generous.

Two Canberra artists this year made it to the list of finalists, Jenni Kemarre Martiniello with her exquisite hot blown glass piece, Rushes Eel Trap and Sarah Carlson as the second place winner in the Waterhouse Youth Art Prize for her Correa Leaves Collar in 18-carat yellow gold and copper.

There are quite a number of pieces that must be applauded for their sincerity, but as artworks are best passed over in silence.

The Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize is a great idea, but it is still punching below its weight in the quality of exhibits it attracts.