Luke Cornish (E.L.K) has made history by being the first street artist to become a finalist in Australia’s most coveted portraiture competition, The Archibald Prize.
Luke Cornish is a stencil artist who composes his work on a computer before painstakingly cutting and spray-painting multiple layers of colour to reach a final resolved image. It is a process which involves working directly from a photograph. Although his subject Father Bob has been painted before for the Archibald, none have attempted to convey him in such a brutally honest way. The process itself ensures that it is a picture perfect likeness and Cornish’s portrait reveals his subject at a far deeper level than any attempt before which is evident from Father Bob’s reaction to the piece.
Since it was first awarded in 1921, The Archibald has encountered a range of debate and controversy.
Henry Hanks’ self portrait in 1934 depicted the artist as unemployed and in tattered attire. The award’s terms however state that the subject must be of a ‘distinguished’ man or woman so the work was heavily criticised.
Two Royal Art Society members, Joseph Wolinski and Mary Edwards, alleged William Dobell’s 1943 prize-winning portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith was ‘a distorted and caricatured form’ and therefore not a portrait at all. They further took legal action against Dobell and the Trustees. Dobell stated in response that he was
‘… trying to create something, instead of copying something. To me, a sincere artist is not one who makes a faithful attempt to put on canvas what is in front of him, but one who tries to create something which is living in itself, regardless of its subject. So long as people expect paintings to be simply coloured photographs they get no individuality and in the case of portraits, no characterisation. The real artist is striving to depict his subject’s character and to stress the caricature, but at least it is art which is alive.’
The whole debate gained mainstream exposure in Australia and raised a series of valid questions that average Australians felt compelled to participate in.
- Was the painting portraiture or caricature and is that even acceptable?
- What is the relationship of realism to art in general?
It was a debate essentially about Modernism that played out in the Australian media and really got people excited to be involved in the arts as events proceeded.
The lawsuit regarding Dobell’s painting was addressed in Justice Roper’s finding that Dobell’s portrait:
‘although characterised by some startling exaggeration and distortion… nevertheless bore a strong degree of likeness to the subject and undoubtedly was a pictorial representation of him.’
John Bloomfield’s 1975 photo-realistic portrait of Tim Burstall was disqualified as it was painted from a photograph of a person the artist had never actually met.
The justification was that the painting would have been simply a faithful rendering of facial features and wouldn’t have revealed the inner-self of the sitter.
Brett Whiteley’s 1978 win entitled, Art, Life and the Other Thing, really pushed these issues further.
It was composed of three panels:
- the first dealing with his personal struggle with drug addiction;
- the second was about how far you can push reality which included his self portrait holding an image of Dobell’s contested portrait of Joshua Smith; and
- the third panel was an actual photograph of Whiteley himself.
The general theme of these debates centers around portraiture and tend to focus on a subjective judgement of whether the work is an ‘acceptable’ likeness, as was the case with Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith, or reveals enough about the true character of the person painted as with John Bloomfield’s disqualified portrait.
Amidst all the controversy surrounding The Archibald Prize throughout its history, it has fostered a wider artistic understanding of relevant issues surrounding portraiture. The importance of Luke Cornish’s selection is in itself a giant step for the acceptance of street art, and especially stencil art, in Australia. Whether or not his work goes on to win the Archibald, the doors are now open for other street artists, of which this country has a great deal of the best the world has to offer.