Lost and profound ... Geoff Harvey's depiction of his partner, Tania Creighton, and dog, Herman.

Lost and profound ... Geoff Harvey's depiction of his partner, Tania Creighton, and dog, Herman.

In the brochure that accompanies this year's Salon des Refuses at the S.H. Ervin Gallery, one reads that the show is ''in the tradition of the renegade French Impressionists of the 1860s, who held a breakaway exhibition from the reactionary French Academy''. Leaving aside the fact that the term ''impressionism'' wasn't used until the 1870s, this suggests, in slightly misleading fashion, that the Archibald and Wynne prizes represent the establishment while the Salon is made up of rebels.

Read on and we find that among those rejected from the Salon of 1863, when the original Refuses exhibition was born, were Cezanne, Pissarro, Fantin-Latour, Whistler and Manet. This is flattering for the S.H. Ervin show, for one will search in vain for a Cezanne or a Pissarro among this year's entries. In fact, beyond the dumb luck of being in or out, there is no distinction whatsoever between the works selected for the latter-day Salon des Refuses and those included in the Archibald and Wynne prizes at the Art Gallery of NSW.

I call it luck because there is precious little science involved in the way the AGNSW trustees select the official shows. Every year the Salon has a small percentage of works that are obviously better than most of the inclusions in the Archibald and Wynne. One fantasises about a Salon that is incomparably superior to the AGNSW selections, but this is a pipe dream. Although they can be patchy, the trustees always manage to gather most of the decent works, leaving the Salon judges to sift through the tailings in search of a glint of gold.

Tax lawyer and poet Geoffrey Lehmann by Tom Carment.

Tax lawyer and poet Geoffrey Lehmann by Tom Carment.

As it is generally acknowledged that this year's Archibald is a dud show, I approached the Salon with trepidation. To go with diminished expectations is not a bad thing, as it makes one less likely to be struck down by disappointment. My companion, who had no such scruples, was duly disappointed.

This year's Salon is probably better than last year's, but lacks an edge. Of the 57 works included, few stand out from the crowd. One could say that Leo Robba's Self Portrait in a Landscape Somewhere Near Mudgee is a standout, if only for its absurdity. Robba has painted himself with his head framed by a bright-orange bush, making it look as if he is wearing an extravagant headdress. At least he is not treating the Archibald as a matter of life and death.

Another painting that makes a striking impression is Jennifer D'Arcy's A Lifetime - Portrait of Dame Elizabeth Murdoch (Philanthropist). D'Arcy has placed her subject - the member of the Murdoch family who everyone likes - against a bright-red backdrop. This tends to emphasise the wrinkles in Dame Elizabeth's 103-year-old visage. The realism is so relentless that it feels a little unkind. Nevertheless, tracing these lines of a life well lived is almost as fascinating for the viewer as it apparently was for the artist.

Shannon Crees's Clover Moore makes Sydney's lord mayor look even more like a member of Skyhooks than she usually does. The size of this head is big enough to satisfy any politician, although it's not a great likeness. If Moore had megalomaniacal tendencies she might consider installing the work in a prominent public location, like Mao's face overlooking Tiananmen Square. The ideal spot would be somewhere easily viewed from Barry O'Farrell's office window.

For the most part, the Salon is made up of works by good artists who have not produced their best form, such as Robert Hannaford, who might be considered unlucky to have missed out with his portrait of Ned Cheedy (Yindjibarndi elder). The brushwork is a little more spontaneous and the colours brighter than most of Hannaford's work but the picture suffers from the fact that we never see the subject's eyes. This makes it feel as though Cheedy is turning away from us, keeping his own secrets. This may be intentional, but it is ultimately more frustrating than engaging for the viewer.

Equally unsatisfactory are Matthew Lynn's portrait of artist Ann Thomson, and Robert Malherbe's Meow Meow (performer). Both these artists are capable of painting portraits of the highest quality, but Lynn's picture is a disjointed affair in which Thomson's expression suggests she'd sooner be painting one of her own works.

Malherbe has tried to capture some of the liveliness of his subject in his expressionistic brushwork, but the overall impression is one of a pair of staring eyes, and a set of exploded arms and legs that could be taken from a de Kooning abstraction.

Peter Smeeth's portrait of Spectrum columnist and ABC broadcaster Richard Glover (shamelessly promoted at every opportunity by the subject) is an excellent likeness spoiled by the artist's urge to crowd the canvas with extraneous information. There was no need for Smeeth to fill the background with an inventory of Glover's publications, radio segments or catchphrases. In a portrait, what can't be conveyed in an image should not be translated into words. The same might be said about Barbara Tyson's Ita Buttrose, which wallows in a distracting collage of verbiage.

Steve Lopes's portrait of actor Asher Keddie is all eyes and teeth. It should be attractive, but it's slightly unsettling, as if we are being bombarded with a subliminal message to buy a particular brand of toothpaste.

If I had to choose a favourite portrait, I'd fall back on that stalwart performer Tom Carment, who has given us a typically sensitive depiction of Geoffrey Lehmann, known to all as an unlikely combination of poet and tax lawyer. Or perhaps Peter Wegner, whose portrait of disability advocate Stella Young captures a vital personality, undaunted by physical frailties.

Without doubt this year's booby prize should go to Rodney Pople for a portrait of Edmund Capon that makes the former director of the AGNSW look like a black smear on a grey wall. Pople seems to have painted out the face and forgotten to put it back. One need not imagine the trustees intended any insult to Capon when they omitted this picture from the Archibald. Aesthetic justice was done.

Geoff Harvey's portrait of his partner, Tania Creighton, and dog, Herman, is a likeable picture, but his artist's statement is sublime. The work, he assures us, is full of profound symbolic meanings. The only problem is he doesn't know what they are.

The Wynne rejects are an equally mixed bunch. Two original, confident works are Peter Gardiner's hypnotic Swamp I (Burrumbeet), and Julie Harris's Gardens of Stone. John Peart's Angophora is better than most of the inclusions in the Wynne, but not top of the line for an artist who commands the highest expectations. Robyn Sweaney has contributed a typically careful, evocative picture of a suburban house; while Stuart Watters has a strange, Guston-esque painting that looks like a pile of rubbish against a bright-yellow background. Alan Jones's Mum and Darren is so odd it could barely be described as a landscape at all - perhaps a small fragmented memory of a landscape.

The two most impressive Wynne rejects are Ross Laurie's Ridge and Creek - Fowlers Gap, and Gladdy Kemarre's Anwekety (Bush Plum). One wonders what Laurie has to do to be selected for the Wynne, as he is arguably one of Australia's most dynamic landscape painters, albeit in a semi-abstract idiom. Although it is no easy matter to identify the specific features of a landscape in Laurie's work - let alone swaggies, jumbucks and other standard bush items - he conveys a powerful sense of the heat and light of the Australian environment - in this instance, the arid regions near Broken Hill.

As for Gladdy Kemarre of Utopia, she shows there are still new dimensions to be explored in Aboriginal dot painting. Kemarre is an exceptional colourist, who has set off the unusual green tonality of Anwekety with minute pinpoints of bright blue and yellow. The work has no competitor as the most beautiful picture in the exhibition.

After the mixed delights of the Salon des Refuses, I visited the Ray Hughes Gallery to sample the unalloyed charms of Lucy Culliton's Bibbenluke Flowers. This title would be considered a very fair description under the Trade Practices Act. The show features more than 70 still-life paintings of flowers in antique bottles, mainly from the artist's garden in the small southern Monaro township of Bibbenluke. Culliton's consistency and unflagging energy are awesome and the show is a complete sellout. If this sounds miraculous in the midst of lean times for the galleries, for a good enough artist there is no such thing as a recession.

johnmcdonald.net.au

SALON DES REFUSES
S.H.Ervin Gallery, until May 20