Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Archibald Prize 2012 in the classroom

I am excited about the announcement of this year's Archibald Prize winner. Completely.

The 2012 Archibald Prize Winner
Tim Storrier's 'The Histrionic Wayfarer (After Bosch)'
There is just so much to say in the classroom about this work. On hearing that Tim Storrier had won the $75,000 prize I immediately Googled the announcement. Ah yes, I knew this work from showing my year 7s a sideshow from the Art Gallery of NSW a week or so before. Oh yes, I think this is a great choice for the winner! I remember Storrier's entry from last year. It was a key work for discussion with Year 10 - discussing how an absence of the physical figure can say so much. Most of the Year 10s really liked Storrier's magical treatment of landscape, of his whimsical explorations of memory and the self.

Like other years before, this year's winner had not been announced at the time that John McDonald had written his article on the prize (SMH March 32-Apr 1, Spectrum). I always enjoy reading his work however I almost feel sorry for someone who has to critique the entries (and possible winners) before they are announced. It must be awful to be in the position of writing so much that could be so wrong. And yet, what a fun game - to predict (from the informed point of view of the expert critic of course) the winners and losers, the 'good' and the 'bad' and then to see the outcome.

Next year I might play this game with my kids. What a great classroom exercise - look thought the slides of entries from the AGNSW website, discuss, critique, judge, then wait...

So, back to the announcement of the winner. John McDonald stated that 'Tim Storrier's The Histrionic Wayfarer (After Bosch) continues a series of self portraits as the invisible man, identifiable only by his clothes and possessions...One suspects even the trustees of the AGNSW would hesitate to give the prize to an invisible subject...'

I would have loved to know reasons why McDonald thought the absent figure would not win. Is it because, as one immediately assumes from his writing, that there is no face and is therefore a controversial choice and too unpredictable, even for the trustees who are open to the 'controversial choice'. Or is it because well, there is no face and of course, many of us know this approach to portraiture has been done numerous times before, and is a little 'old hat' and predictable?

And, back to the announcement (there are just so many diversions from the subject at hand when blogging). The day of the announcement, Tim Storrier's work made me feel an immediate excitement.

Rarely do I teach art theory on a Friday last period. The kids are just not in the headspace to retain in-depth information on the artworld. And who could blame them? Their heads are in the play they will have in only 50 minutes time! And yet, Friday afternoon's class was one of the best I have had with this group.

We discussed the winner - why this work could be seen as controversial due to the fact the man has no face. We looked at all the clothes and objects and the gestures that make up the figure, and how these say so much about the type of man Storrier is. Of course, we couldn't ignore the artist's dog who looks directly towards a floating piece of paper with a drawing of the artist's portrait.

We then looked at Bosch's work and compared the two. We looked at Storrier's entry from last year and compared the work to this year's winner.

              Tim Storrier's 2011 entry

Then we looked at Brett Whiteley's 1977 'Self Portrait in the Studio' - how could we not? The comparisons are lovely for Year 7s, particularly with Storrier's actual portrait on a piece of paper, and Whiteley's actual portrait in the small mirror, and all the objects and belongings that tell us so much about the artists themselves. Combined with previous investigations, students were able to gain a good understanding of the history of the prize and how approaches to portraiture have changed.

Brett Whiteley's 'Self-Portrait in the Studio (1977)
Finally, we looked at Brett Whiteley' self portrait 'Art, Life and The Other Thing' (1978) which includes a drawing of the artist drawing Dobell's painting of Joshua Smith - Dobell's work being a controversy students have investigated in-depth during a previous lesson.

Brett Whiteley's 'Art, Life and the Other Thing' (1978)

Therefore, during this lesson students gained an understanding of how artists have an informed knowledge of the artworld and how their artworks are often informed by this knowledge (we may also talk about appropriation here).

Links such as these lead me to the conclusion that this year's winner is an obvious choice, and a very strategic choice at that! John McDonald, surely you would agree! What a great catalogue discussion this would make.

Back again to the lesson: This may sound like a lot of content however it fit perfectly within the 50 minute allocation. I usually encourage note taking however during this lesson we just sat and talked. The responses I got from the kids were outstanding, and yes, our classes are graded, and yes, this was a 'less advanced' class. I often find the 'lower' classes have an outstanding ability to talk about the artworld during class discussion, even if their reading and writing skills are considered to be less advanced than the other kids.

What I also enjoyed about this lesson is that I 'Googled' all the content as I taught it. It means I have to be fairly fast and make sure (the Googling being projected on the Smart Board for all the see) that nothing inappropriate is included in the search, however this approach can be good modelling for how to look at relevant websites and content. It is also of use when there is no time to create a PowerPoint, worksheets, etc.

If anyone has any ideas or tales of teaching the Archibald Prize to students I would love to know here.

Storrier images:

Whiteley: (Self Portrait in the Studio, 1977):

Whiteley (Art, Life and the Other Thing, 1978):