A Tale of Two Drawing Prizes
Dr Mark Dober
It may seem surprising that drawing prizes are popular when drawing itself seems to lack a presence in the various institutionalised surveys of Australian contemporary art that come along from time to time (such as Melbourne Now at the NGV in 2013), but rest assured they are flourishing. Two current prizes in my neighbourhood, in central Victoria, are the Rick Amor Drawing Prize (Art Gallery of Ballarat, ended 2 October), and the Paul Guest Prize (Bendigo Art Gallery, ends 16 October).
Drawing and painting are related skills and practices, yet we regard them as having their own distinct character. Painting tends to feature colour, while drawing tends to the monochrome, particularly black and white. Drawing master Godwin Bradbeer, who judged the Paul Guest, noted in his opening remarks that painting and drawing are, respectively, like someone with their clothes on, and with their clothes off. In other words, drawing can be viewed as providing direct access to the artist’s inner mind and workings, while painting can be viewed as being more concerned with outward appearances.
While a number of the exhibiting artists (including myself) have been represented in both drawing exhibitions, I was curious to know whether there was much that was different between the two exhibitions. Did the aims of the these prizes diverge, and in what ways?
First, consider the Rick Amor Drawing Prize. Gordon Morrison, Director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat, in answering my questions about the aims and character of the Prize noted: “With respect to the Rick Amor prize … there are some basic determinants that you have to take into consideration. The first is that this Prize was an initiative of Rick Amor himself and the prize money has been put up by him since its inception. The second is that it is a prize for a small drawing, and that means it is for a work on a sheet of paper no larger than A3 in size. Why? Because the artist who has put up the money for the prize has expressed a concern for fostering drawing … as part of a practicing artist’s working method.
“This is not, therefore, a prize about large, highly resolved work, nor is it necessarily about ‘cutting edge’ image making. It is about producing an effective image working within a defined set of parameters – the size of the sheet. In some ways you could say, therefore, that this is a prize put on by an artist for artists, and is concerned with encouraging a particular set of working skills.”
Gordon further commented on the process by which artists are selected as finalists: that this was done by himself and by an exhibitions designer, who would shortlist between one quarter and one sixth of the entries. While Gordon is responsible for selecting the judge, he also takes input from Rick Amor. Usually, the judges are practising artists who have some knowledge of drawing from their own professional practice; once the judge was a curator from the NGV.
I wondered if the Prize money of $12,000 might be increased to attract “bigger names”. Gordon countered: “$12,000 is actually rather a lot for a smallish drawing, even if it is an acquisitive prize. We actually like the mix of ‘big name’ and ‘relative unknown’ participants and don’t feel the purse has much to do with who has participated.”
As for my own research, I read all the artist statements, and these were characteristically of a personalised nature, particularly where portraiture was concerned. I tabulated the numbers of works that fell into one genre or another: portraiture and the figure were dominant. I sought a sense of how much of the work was sourced from photographs, drawn from life, or imagined: these were roughly in equal proportions.
The winner of the Rick Amor Drawing Prize was Peter Wegner. The artist’s drawing, Three Days with Em is a perceptual work – drawn from life. It may be that the small scale requirement of the Rick Amor encourages a proportionately greater number of artists to submit work made from life.
On the evidence of this exhibition, drawing from life encourages an investigative approach. That is because in the perceptual process mark making is organically linked to the artist’s visual experience as it unfolds in real time. Responding to the presence of the subject the artist can give expression to intuitive feelings. Wegner’s drawing is typical of this in that it is imbued with a sense of humanity.
Now consider the Paul Guest Prize.
While exhibiting work of all sizes, including small works, a key difference of the Paul Guest Drawing Prize is that works of a much larger size generally are on show. Hence, there are fewer works overall to be seen than there are in the Rick Amor.
The impact of this difference – at least at first sight – is that work in the Paul Guest appears to have a more commanding presence. This initial response can be further heightened by greater name recognition. While the prize money of $12,000 is the same as for the Rick Amor, it could be that the greater scope for larger work in the Paul Guest encourages artists to enter a tableau work they may consider more ambitious and more representative of their achievement than the Rick Amor affords.
Simone Bloomfield, the curator of the Paul Guest Prize, noted in response to my questions that “selecting a range of drawing styles, along with a high skills base” were key selection criteria for the shortlisted works.
The Paul Guest Prize began in 2010, named after its benefactor, a retired lawyer and avid collector of contemporary art, who initiated the Prize and put up the prize money. Simone notes, however, that Bendigo Gallery previously had the Robert Jacks Drawing Prize and the Works on Paper Prize, and so has always supported drawing.
As with the Rick Amor, portraiture and figure compositions are widely in evidence. Peter Grziwotz’s winning work, ‘Study of St Jerome as a self-portrait’, is not a direct observational response to the subject, as the artist told me that he referenced a photograph when making the work. Though realist in style, the work seems motivated by an idea, as the title suggests.
In conclusion, a tendency to the perceptual at the Rick Amor and a tendency to the conceptual at the Paul Guest is exemplified by the winning works in 2016, and illustrates the difference that underlies the two prizes.
The Rick Amor Drawing Prize, Art Gallery of Ballarat, until 1st October 2016 – artgalleryofballarat.com.au
The Paul Guest Drawing Prize, Bendigo Art Gallery until 16 October – bendigoartgallery.com.au