Basil Sellers Art Prize 5
The Ian Potter Museum of Art
The University of Melbourne
Swanston Street (Between Faraday & Elgin Streets)
Closed November 6, 2016.
‘ART is not sport’ – said Degas, disdainfully, to the son of one of his best friends who insisted on tramping around the countryside, easel and paintbox at the ready, intent on capturing and subjugating the landscape, like a hunter, in colour and form on canvas. Degas was of the view that creating images was mental exercise, not physical; an activity more about taking time to craft and refine an initial idea, rather than respond to a ball or target dangling in front of one’s eyes. Art, above all was definitely not a race for Degas. If such was the case, he’d finish stone motherless last in any speed painting competition; Monet would murder him every time.
On the field, court, course or track there’s often not a lot of time to think – that’s part of the attraction of sport. Success relies on action, physical effort to the point of exhaustion, the ability to size up and seize an opportunity as it appears with split-second accuracy. Who doesn’t marvel at the under-pressure physical artistry of Roger Federer or Eddie Betts, desperate to score points, wonder at the reflexes and power of the Opals basketball team as they sweep up court, intent on a score, gasp in awe at the courage and lightning control of Lewis Hamilton or Daniel Ricciardo as they wrestle a race car at huge speed, only just the right side of disaster. It is difficult, without sounding pompous, to laud the courageous brushwork of Ben Quilty, the inspiring compositional decisions of Brett Whiteley or the winsome, pictorial lyricism of Margaret Olly. Perhaps Degas was right. And yet….
Both art and sport can inspire, raise passions, provide hope (c’mon Collingwood), lift spirits, provide distraction, entertainment and amusement, broaden individual experience and teach self-understanding; they are therapies, goodness for the soul. So while visual art may not be as physical as sport, it can be very like sport. The similarity of this exhibition doesn’t stop there either – this is an art prize, and therefore a competition; there will be winners and losers and the potential for debate over the judges’ decisions lies at its very heart. And like sport, an exhibition needs spectators; while playing the game and art for its own sake are worthy and undeniable tenets, the thrill of performance, the chance of victory and reward, judgement by others and vocal support raise the experience for player, artist and supporter, alike.
Over the last ten years, the Ian Potter Museum of Art has partnered with Mr Basil Sellers (AM) to produce a biannual art prize with the theme of sport and sporting culture as the creative driver. In that time, 94 finalists, drawn from hundreds of entrants have battled it out on the gallery floor for recognition and reward. This year, seventeen finalists, including two collaborative partnerships, were selected for exhibition at the Potter. Nearly every modern oeuvre is represented here, including painting, printmaking, sculpture, photography, ceramics, textiles, video and virtual reality works of exceptional quality.
In this exhibition each artist has looked to the core idea of sport and taken great trouble to use that theme as the springboard for investigating a wide range of subjects that should matter to us all. The impact of technology on our lives, how it can subsume us; the effects of our actions on the environment, culture, religion, history, racial and gender equality, health and well-being are all explored here. Like sport, the sum of this is more than its parts – although there’s wonder in individual passages of play (the detail, if you like), it is the grandeur of the collective struggle that is magnificent, provoking and entertaining. As a survey of contemporary art in Australia, you’d travel far to do better, regardless of the core theme.
It is a shame in some ways that this is the last in the series – the 2016 prize will be the swan song. This prize has turned into a true highlight of the art calendar in Australia and will be sorely missed. Fortunately you have plenty of time to see it – it will run, appropriately, until the end of the Melbourne Cup race week carnival, finishing on Sunday, November 6. In the words of the great John Kennedy senior, ‘Don’t think, do‘. Go, be amazed and make sure you barrack for your winner through the people’s choice award.