The annual Glover Prize, Australia's richest landscape painting award, has been hung and won for the 12th time, and possibly with a touch more controversy than usual. ('Martin Bryant painting wins Glover Prize' ) The small frissons occurring over the selection of Josh Foley's 2011 winner, Gee's Lookout (public obsession over Foley's palette and gestural form over-riding his almost-impeccable use of picturesque principles) and Ian Waldron's 2010 Walach Dhaarr (Cockle Creek) (with its indigenous context that some found unsettling or only tenuously connected to the Glover ethos) built on the twitter of concern regarding the urban subject matter of Matthew Armstrong's Transformed at night (2009).
Rodney Pople's Port Arthur (oil and archival pigment on linen, 90x134) was sure to stir the possum rather more than these previous winners. Pople has a long history of visual agitation while staying just within the bounds of the subject of a prize or exhibition (see, for example, his Highly Commended Blake Prize entry of 2010) so no surprise there. He stated (Saturday Age, 10 March 2012, 7) that if the Glover painting caused pain, 'So it should. You can't exonerate what goes on there', citing Port Arthur as the site of violence to Aborigines, convicts and Martin Bryant's 1996 massacre of 35 workers and tourists. It is the inclusion of the small figure of Bryant in this current work that is causing the disquiet voiced in the media. Curator Jane Deeth has rightly commented that the media has rapidly moved to misrepresent the work, by enlarging or concentrating on Bryant's small figure, rather than the painting as a whole or, for that matter, the painting as a painting. (Examiner 12 March, 2012, 3)
My own disquiet in viewing Pople's work is not that it is a bad painting - it isn't. Nor am I overly concerned about the presence in the image of Bryant - at least on one level, and considering that Glover himself included in his own works the convicted going about their business, albeit not the business that got them into their situation in the first place (My Harvest Home, with its convict labourers being a case in point). It is, rather, that this would seem to be a genre painting rather than a landscape in the strict sense of that term. My first reaction at seeing the work was to its atmospheric connections not to Glover but to another work that combines reportage and description with Gothic allegory, and that is the painting usually attributed to Thomas Watling, A Direct North View of Sydney Cove, the Chief British Settlement in New South Wales, As It Appeared in 1794, Being the 7th Year of its Establishment Painted Immediately from Nature by T Watling (Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales. See image on National Treasures). Unlike Glover, Watling was not enamoured with the picturesque possibilities of the colonial landscape. Whereas Glover simply compressed or extended the encountered environment of Tasmania to create good (aesthetic) effect, Watling rather peevishly selected from what he saw as an impoverished catalogue of features from which to assemble his views. (See DAAO for more on Watling) His view of Sydney Cove combines figures, landscape and built environment. It is a contrivance, juxtaposing symbols of a morally-questionable society with settlement spruced-up for 'home' consumption at the behest of those in power. The already-displaced Aboriginals appear as shadows in their own land, and those Europeans shown turn their attention away from subject view. In its assemblage of multiple elements of a singular cultural view, Pople's painting, as Watling's, is a genre or subject image (see the description of the Sulman Prize, which Pople won in 2008), rather than landscape, no matter that both employ refined pictureque arrangement to carry a narrative on aesthetic (and hence moral) terms.
As Pople commented in the Saturday Age interview, Port Arthur reminded him of Nazi concentration camps he recently visited, in its connections to violence against specific groups. And this is where another niggle occurs, one that is to me almost more disquieting than the presence of Bryant. Port Arthur, as painted by Pople, is clearly the Disneyfied tourist conglomeration it is now. It is history commodified, pruned and pristine. That is the shock. It is the same shock some of us might have had when visiting a concentration camp such as Birkenau. It's a space that feels empty, almost abandoned of meaning, yet is endlessly open to imaging: Birkenau presents perspectives of barracks, of guard towers, of railway lines to the gas chambers which are impossible not to take in, to gaze upon. We cannot turn our backs as do the figures in Watling's View. It is the shock of Auschwitz, beyond the souvenir stand in the car park, the introductory documentary film and the volunteer guide's spiel, when you encounter the warm brick of the buildings, the gracious avenues of trees, the Commandant's villa and swimming pool in sight beyond the walls. The order of the place - be it touristic concentration camp or convict gaol - is what makes the experience strange and estranged. The history is in your head, not in front of you. What should be emblematic of social chaos has gone cold. Even the presence of Bryant, an image Pople sourced from the media, contributes to the calculated juxtapositions that make up this painting. This is what I find most disturbing in this year's Glover Prize winner.
Someone in the crowd of exhibition viewers on Sunday morning commented that the Glover was becoming rather like the Archibald - more a headline than an art exhibition. Well, that's what prize exhibitions should do - generate interest and debate. In an editorial, Martin Gilmour commented (Sunday Examiner 11 March 2012, 26) that, 'The judges' decision this year is sure to broaden the reputation of the Glover Art Prize. Whether that reputation is enhanced or not is debatable'. Of course, by this Mr Gilmour means that the reputation of the Prize is not enhanced at all, at least in his eyes. But, if we move beyond the cliche, he's inadvertently right about one thing -- the essence of this work and the prize awarded it, is debatable, in that it should be debated. It's art, after all.