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Contemporary Australian Portraits

Thursday 14 November 2002 until Sunday 2 March 2003

Contemporary Australian Portraits is a cross section, a sampling, of some of the present-day directions in Australian portrait practice. As the first display in the Gallery’s newly opened annex in Commonwealth Place, the exhibition flags a number of our intentions over the next three years. Firstly, it declares that the Commonwealth Place exhibitions will be modern in content and character, designed to fit with the contemporary architecture of the building.

Contemporary Australian Portraits is grouped around three ideas. The first is an examination of a trend in recent portraiture, to present images of faces in groups. Inevitably such groups make us think about individuals in broader social contexts. It is not possible to look, say at Siri Hayes’s simple portraits of mothers and babies without being reminded of recent debates in Australia about the value of motherhood, or at Ricky Maynard’s portraits of Wik elders without being reminded of the proximity of Commonwealth Place to the High Court where decisions affecting the lives of all Australians are made.

In contrast with these generalising portraits are portraits of individuals. The most extreme expression of individuality is found in the self-portrait. There are more self-portraits painted than any other type of portrait in Australia; the subject is one of seemingly endless possibilities. The self-portraits included in this exhibition demonstrate the flexibility and the possibilities of the self-portrait as an expression of identity, reflection and bold experimentation.

The third emphasis in Contemporary Australian Portraits is on the National Portrait Gallery’s central role in presenting important Australians across all fields. Here the Gallery has a shaping role; through the process of commissioning significant contemporary artists to create portraits, the Gallery expresses its aspiration to see portraiture as a major stream in contemporary art, not merely a specialist activity.

Andrew Sayers