Portraits Project

When Manly Art Gallery & Museum (MAG&M) were considering their shows for the ninetieth anniversary of the gallery, they wanted to highlight the contemporary artists who have contributed to exhibitions in recent times. One avenue they realised they hadn’t explored was portraiture. ‘We know there's such interest with so many prizes around Australia focused on portraiture, and we've never tapped into it,’ says Senior Curator Katherine Roberts.

‘This doesn’t aim to be the Archibald because it is about self-portraiture,’ explains Roberts, ‘It’s putting the artist at the centre of their art practice, at the centre of the Northern Beaches, and at the centre of our recognition of those artists whose art practice is dynamic and thriving.’ The two exhibitions currently showing at MAQ&M, ‘Artists’ Portraits – Photographs by Greg Weight’ and ‘Portraits Project: 15 Self-Portraits’, became a chance to connect with artists and the gallery’s history.

The portraits pose a suitable reflection during the time of Corona, capturing a moment of time where our environment is entirely local. Photographs by Northern Beaches local Greg Weight as well as painted self-portraits by a fifteen practitioners capture artists in their studios, homes, alone or with their partners.

Weight’s twenty-two portrait photographs depict artists currently living and working on the Northern Beaches. ‘When I am given the privilege of entering an artist’s studio, I believe I am walking on sacred ground. Artists are complex individuals,’ comments Weight. ‘My objective is to pay homage to the artists and their work. These special people work largely in isolation and always have.’

Occasionally, the portraits take shape in unusual settings, such as Julia Davis crouching in a tunnel. Like an animal caught in the headlights, Weight captures the artist in motion. Shoufay Derz’s portrait sees her as a scientist ready for an experiment, bizarrely a large tongue on the desk and her hands painted green like surgical gloves.

Some artists appear peacefully at home, creating their craft. Bruce Goold smiles up at the camera as he reveals a familiar magpie or two on an etching. Helge Larsen and Darani Lewers are captured in conversation, potentially musing on their almost fifty-year partnership in jewellery and hollow-ware.

These intimate photographs bring us closer to the humans behind the artworks, tapping into the realism and connection we’ve been seeking throughout lockdown. This philosophy is mirrored throughout the fifteen specially commissioned self-portrait paintings at the gallery, deeply personal works where the artist welcomes us into their thinking and consideration of these times.

Blak Douglas was inspired by Warhol’s series of large prints in My boomerang won’t come back (2020). He considers his mixed ancestries through the ochre-coloured bands in the background representing his tribal Dhungatti past.

Guan Wei also contemplates his own identity in Guan Wei 63 (2020) by depicting only half his face as a metaphor for perception. ‘How to define a self-portrait?’ he questions in the catalogue, ‘In particular, for an immigrant artist like me who has always been travelling between two places and more. My face does not always stay the same. My identity and my roles are constantly changing with the environment and different people.’

Alongside identity, we also see the anxieties of the world weighing on the artists. For Katherine Edney’s Self-portrait contemplating solitude (2020) and Euan Macleod’s Manly self-portrait with mirror (2020), both artists began their portraits pre-COVID. The first considers herself a year on from motherhood in what should be a time of happiness, yet instead, waves of concern travels over the artist’s face as she wraps herself in sheets. For Macleod, he began the painting during the bushfires, wishing for rains, but now, encased in fear for the global pandemic.

Some artists have taken this opportunity to reflect on the non-alone-ness they feel. In Guy Maestri’s Self in Sally’s sea (2020) he considers the immenseness of parenting and the immeasurable support of his wife, comparing her to the vastness of the sea.

Even though the MAG&M curators could never have predicted the relevance of ‘Portrait Project’, it comes at a critical time as we are searching for a way to connect with each other. To remember moments that seem so much more significant and pivotal than we could imagine; art, and portraiture in particular, can capture stillness and reflection.

This article is sponsored by the Northern Beaches Council as part of the series ‘Documenting Art in the Time of Corona.’

Portraits Project
7 August – 18 October 2020
Manly Art Gallery & Museum, Sydney

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