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Adam’s Prize Apples

by Pamela Gerrish Nunn, 15 December 2016

Pamela Gerrish Nunn explores New Zealand’s premium award for portraiture.

Sisters, 2015 by André Brönnimann
Sisters, 2015 by André Brönnimann

The New Zealand Portrait Gallery has just seen another very popular Adam Portraiture Award come to its successful conclusion. This biennial event has become a fixture on Wellington’s visual culture calendar, attracting huge visitor numbers and enthusiastic audience participation. Established in 2002 and named for its patrons, Denis and Verna Adam, the award is a successor to the first ever national portrait award, which was administered in 2000 by the New Zealand Portrait Gallery.

The Gallery itself began only towards the end of 1991, a result of agitation for such a national institution begun in 1988 by Bill Williams, Judy Williams and Sir John Marshall; it was established in its present home on Wellington’s waterfront only in 2010. From the outset, the institution favoured the idea of demonstrating and promoting the Gallery’s raison d’etre with a national competition, history having shown the merit of this concept across the Tasman in the form of Australia’s Archibald Prize, and across the globe in the London National Portrait Gallery’s BP Portrait Award. The influence of the latter prize on the Adam Award was reflected in the choice of then director of the British National Portrait Gallery, Charles Saumarez Smith, as the prize’s inaugural judge.

Of course, there have been and continue to be other important art awards in New Zealand, from the pioneering National Bank Art Award instituted in 1958, which has grown to include an invitation to portraitists, to all-round art awards such as the Walters Prize, and more than one annual competition specifically recognising drawing (the Cranleigh Barton Award; the Parkin Prize). Although Auckland hosted the Nola Holmwood Portrait Award from 1973 to 2002, the 1990s provided few significant opportunities for portraitists throughout the country to participate in a collective endeavour to personify ‘New Zealandness’. As a consequence, there remained a clear desire for portraiture that showcased the country’s heritage and character, bore witness to its heterogeneity (as well as its specificity), and spoke to New Zealanders’ famed embrace of egalitarianism.

The result of this pursuit – the Adam Award – celebrates portraits that represent NZPG’s own kaupapa (purpose, objective). While the winner looks forward to a $20,000 purse, the award is about much more than just prize money. And although it includes the ‘rich and famous’, it by no means favours the elite; in fact, the Adam provides a platform for portraits that represent a cross-section of New Zealand society. The award recognises portraiture as a pictorial record for future generations, and thus a historical and social taonga (treasure) as much as an aesthetic one.

The initial competition’s call for portraits in painting, sculpture, photography and ‘multi-media’ was reformed to paintings only when it became the Adam Portraiture Award, although that definition has been tested by more than one entrant in any given year, and the policy may yet be revisited in the future. The commonality of medium allows for a more level playing field when it comes to judgment, and facilitates those decisions being understood by the gallery-going public, who may not be dedicated art-lovers nor well-informed about current practice in different media. That said, the size and style of entries is not prescribed, and the great physical variety of the works offered each year is testament to the richness of possibility within this most familiar of genres. Every year the roll-call of entrants includes names both famous and unknown, with a steady increase over the years in the total number of artists entering. The biennial structure allows for a certain amount of re-grouping on each artist’s part, as well as encouraging the emergence of the next cohort of art students – though some entrants reappear with noticeable regularity, earning them the facetious/tongue-in-cheek tag of ‘recidivist’ or ‘serial entrant’ from loyal gallery-goers.

One of the challenges faced by national competitive projects in New Zealand is the country’s small population. That is, in a nation inhabited by fewer than five million people, true disinterest or neutrality is, dare I say, difficult to guarantee! The idea that a suitably qualified home-grown art professional would have no foreknowledge of, or connection with, the makers or subjects of any of the 350 locally produced portraits is statistically improbable. As a result, the award has always been determined by an international judge.

They have always been solo arbiters, rather than a panel or committee of judges. To date, they have included the Director of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington (2004), the Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (2006), the Director-General of the Portrait Gallery of Canada (2008) and the Director of the Australian National Portrait Gallery (2012). In 2016, the judge was the Director of the Museum of National History of Denmark, an institution which also holds that nation’s portrait collection. We can only hope that the population of New Zealand will have grown sufficiently to allow the possibility of an independent judge from the home front before the Awards Committee runs out of national capitals possessing portrait galleries! As it is, many visitors are more invested in the People’s Choice award than the decision of the invited judge, whose mana (authority) might well be obscure to them.

There has been no discernible trend in the winning works over the years; there was a nude winner one year (Kayte – Harriet Bright’s portrait of blues singer Kayte Edwards) although no portrait has yet been abstract or hostile. Abstractions are perhaps deterred by the mention in the rules of ‘likeness’, though one would hope this would not preclude bolder entrants from treading the same ground as, say, Charles Demuth in his delightfully allusive ‘portraits’ of the late 1920s, or even Katherine Dreier’s notorious 1915 portrait of Marcel Duchamp. While the idea of a hostile portrait might be intriguing or exciting to bold spirits, satire is about as far as entries tend to go in the direction of ‘negativity’. The great majority of paintings are affectionate, celebratory or, at the very least, respectful – with few of the self-portraits, where licence might safely be taken, involving themselves in the tangled skeins of contempt or hatred. There are, so far, no Schmidt-Rottluffs in this self-selecting assembly.

Because the judge initially receives the works in anonymous digital reproductions, it is not until the second stage that he or she can consider the handling and finish of the portraits, and the meanings or greater context that titles may allow an artist to spell out. This anonymity could well mask examples of self-portraiture, so the relationship of the artist to the sitter may come to light only late in the process. This year, judge Mette Skougaard had 366 works to appraise and whittle down to fifty-nine finalists. Skougaard stated that she found it difficult to choose amongst such a generally high-standard collection of work and that the variety was as impressive as the quality. ‘It has been of particular interest’, she observed, ‘to see how the works are following international trends at the same time as many of them have particular elements in style and imagery that refers to the special culture and environment of New Zealand.’ Others referenced individual historical portraits or specific styles in the history of art. The group of finalists also included a few naïf or ‘Sunday painter’ canvases, indicating that the judge brought a very open mind to the question of what makes a portrait effective.

In 2016, the winning work was Andre Brönnimann’s Sisters. Painted on a large horizontal canvas, Sisters depicts three mature Maori women the artist came across by chance in the north-western town of Whanganui. Brönnimann’s photo-realist style is facilitated by his use of photographs rather than live sittings. This approach enables him to achieve the penetratingly steady gaze with which his three sitters address the viewer. Not literally sisters, these three women present a forceful sense of mana wahine (womanly power) with their moko (facial tattoo), and traditional clothing bonding their physically diverse appearances. The runner-up was Logan Moffatt’s Stitch, a large vertical canvas showing the eponymous young man standing before the Auckland barber shop in which the artist found him. Again, the rendition is highly faithful to the literal appearance of the subject, and the contained energy or anxiety of the black t-shirted, tattooed man who can scarcely, it seems, stay still long enough for the composition to be laid down, gives the painting an intense presence.

The single male figure was also showcased in the works of other finalists, with Stephen M Welch’s Wanaka’s Hero – emerging Christ-like from a dark setting, bearing the tools of succour, if not salvation – and Andrew Barns-Graham’s Evan – in which the snappily-dressed sitter appeared to be painting the surface through which he is seen by the viewer – indicating the wide range of male personae to be found in New Zealand society in the early 21st century. Self-portraiture was also recognised by the judge in Philippa Dawson’s compelling and virtuosic The Drawing Teacher, which used various conceits of this sub-genre in a highly sophisticated manner.

Other finalists can be viewed on the Gallery’s website, and private arguments about the merit of these decisions prosecuted at leisure. Meanwhile, the New Zealand Portrait Gallery’s faithful public must wait until 2018 for the next fascinating iteration of this national drama, which proves the enduring validity of portraiture as a branch of visual culture.

All images courtesy of the New Zealand Portrait Gallery and Barbora Michálková.

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