Like most institutions in its weight division, the Art Gallery of New South Wales is not averse to courting controversy to attract attention in a competitive market. The one predictable thing then about the choices made by the trustees in choosing the winning entry in the famed Archibald Prize each year is their innate ability to shock. But this year the dreary collection of paintings on display was perhaps more notable for its lack of serious painting than for its zeitgeist – with a few exceptions.
This year the offence is to be found in an adjoining gallery space, among the landscape paintings of the Wynne Prize. Abdul Abdullah's painting ‘A Terrible Burden’ has sparked in my view a hurtful debate, bringing claims to artistic freedom in stark conflict with obligations to factual accuracy, ethics and perhaps even the law. And while such tensions are not new to art in Australia, the apparent malice behind this work is.
In what to me can only be seen as an attempt to garner sympathy, Abdullah in presenting his thesis denigrates the contribution to Australian art of arguably one of Australia’s ‘greatest living artists’, John Olsen. It reaches beyond irreverent, a usually delighting aspect of Abdullah's work.
In the least, Abdullah here is loose with the facts in his attempt to make a broader point – a point with some validity otherwise. At worse, he is trampling on libel.
John Olsen in 2017 Photo: The Daily Telegraph
How this work came to be given such prominence is curious. No previous major Australian prize and its guardians in my memory have been so tolerant of - if not inadvertently complicit in - such a smear. And here any refuge in a defence of freedom of artistic expression is disingenuous.
A Terrible Burden does not offer much on its own. As a landscape it is well executed, referencing the tight, structured traditional landscape painting complained about, but of little import otherwise. Despite its protest, writ large across the canvas, the painting requires explanation.
To this end, Abdullah writes in his accompanying artist’s statement,
The history of Australian landscape painting has been cloaked in the language of colonialism: frontiers, exploration and discovery – the language of ownership. The rhetoric regarding taming, conquering and capturing the Australian landscape reflects a desire to possess it.
Artist Abdul Abdullah Photo: NAVA
On one level, an historical one, this statement has merit. Had Abdullah built upon this narrative to steer away from traditional depictions of landscape to a more fluid, contemporary one, of the artist being at one with or passing through a landscape – both actual and metaphorical, or even at a mythical or spiritual level – his painting would have something worthwhile to say. But Abdullah strays - making it all too personal. It is far from a 'gentle jab', as described elsewhere. Perhaps a different epitaph or juxtaposition would have served the artist better?
‘Frontiers have always been broken’ is a quote from one self-identifying Australian landscape painter referring to the practice of another. The phrase written across the painting quotes the latter painter when asked to discuss his status as Australia’s greatest living artist. Like the settlers before them the moral obligation to claim the Australian landscape is the cross they feel the need to bear.
Clearly referencing fellow Australian artist Luke Sciberras as the “one self-identifying Australian landscape painter” referring to “another”, John Olsen (a long time trustee of the AGNSW) and his admiration for the ground-breaking then octogenarian artist in a Sydney Morning Herald article by Steve Meacham in 2011, Abdullah appropriates Sciberras’ comparison for his own purposes.
Artist Luke Sciberras Photo: ABC
But it is the art critic John McDonald who first queries the future direction of Australian painting, crediting Sciberras with ''working in an area that is unfashionable with artists of his generation … a lot of them are avant-garde, making videos, doing subject paintings with a conceptual edge''. This context is important.
Talented artists of this ilk – which include Abdullah, an outstanding artist himself - are not hostage, follows Sciberras, to the imagery or techniques of their 19th century, European-influenced predecessors.
In their hands, McDonald asserts the future of Australian landscape painting is assured.
In this way, "frontiers have always been broken" acknowledges Sciberras.
With [his paintings of] Lake Eyre, John Olsen is like [the explorers] Burke and Wills. He has found something that has recaptured the Australian imagination.
John Olsen, 'Lake Eyre - the Desert Sea' (2014) Photo: Fairfax
While the journalist’s headline reference to new frontiers and Sciberras’ ‘exuberant’ reference to Colonial explorers Burke and Wills may be unfortunate and inflammatory to a number of contemporary artists, Sciberras is referring to the constraints and boundaries of European painting techniques, limiting the imaginings of each new generation of Australian landscape painting.
That is until artists (explorers) “like Drysdale, [Sidney] Nolan and Ray Crooke in the Atherton Tablelands came along.
Delivering up something new, has 'recaptured' he says, 'the Australian imagination'. No mention of taming, conquering and capturing or possessing the Australian landscape.
For Abdullah to suggest that the practice of Sciberras, Olsen and like-minded contemporary artists are “cloaked in the language of colonialism” and somehow linked to early frontiersmen by them is simply wrong.
Sciberras point is that the Australian landscape art has moved beyond the traditional and embraced by new generations of Australian artists. (Steve Meacham, 'Passing the art baton', The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August 2011)
And for Olsen, the burden he feels (in response to a journalists assertion to him that he is widely seen as Australia’s greatest living painter) is a terrible one. Among so many artists Olsen humbly denies the accolade, speaking in terms of ‘passing the baton’, of generational change. Nor does he lay claim to the landscape. (Janet Hawley, 'The Getting of Wisdom', Sydney Morning Herald 11 December 2010)
Janet Hawley, 'The Getting of Wisdom', Sydney Morning Herald, 11 December 2010
Olsen sees his relationship with the landscape more as a wanderer. A peripatetic. And his enduring artistic life is a testament to his resilience – a trait shared with other great Australian painters. Olsen is today in a very real sense, Australia’s greatest living artist.
But attributing to Olsen any claim to the Australian landscape as his own or within his gift is a false misrepresentation and should not stand. The trustees of the AGNSW should acknowledge this, and in so doing recognise the immense contribution of Olsen to Australian art and to the Art Gallery of New South Wales itself.
As for the artist, Abdul Abdullah appears to owe more to John Olsen than evidently he is prepared to admit.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales Photo: Andrew McIlroy
Main Photo: Abdul Abdullah, 'A Terrible Burden' (2019) Photo: AGNSW
Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and arts writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia