Dr Leigh Summers, director at Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery, has been hosting a very exciting exhibition calendar for almost a decade now. With 52 works on display this year, there are plenty of familiar faces, including actress Cate Blanchett, as well as the winner of this year’s prize, a portrait of Penelope Seidler by Fiona Lowrie. We caught up with Leigh to learn about the prestigious Archibald Prize exhibition this month.
What is your role at the Art Gallery, and how have you seen the gallery develop?
I am the director of the gallery and have worked here for nearly nine years. The size of the gallery remains the same but our exhibitions and public programmes have seen the space used to capacity. Our beautiful grand piano is a huge asset that has performers approaching us for venue use. We have even had a wedding here and would like to do more of these. Could there be a more elegant place for such an occasion? I think not. We have also held dinner parties here, along with classical music and jazz concerts. The gallery is small, but we use it in diverse ways to serve the cultural needs of the city.
Coffs Harbour is privileged to be hosting The Archibald Prize once again. What makes this year’s exhibition so special?
Archibald is always a thrilling time at the gallery. This year the standard of works is so high, that not even the most acerbic of the competition’s critics, John McDonald, could pan it! This really is a show for everyone to enjoy. Paintings this year are large (actually too large to get though the gallery doors) and small. That said, only three paintings are not touring because of size restrictions. Some of the most exquisite work exhibited is in almost miniature format.
Describe the works that will make up the exhibition, and who is able to enter? What are the basic conditions of entry?
Any artist over the age of 18 in Australia is able to enter the Archibald. Works that make up the exhibition are from across the painting spectrum. Viewers can expect to see very fine examples that draw from impressionism, expressionism, and hyperrealism. Indeed, all the “isms” are represented in this Archibald.
What is your favourite piece and why? What piece really stands out to you?
Gosh, such a hard question. So many good works, so many favourites. It is impossible not dwell on the luscious double portrait of Cate Blanchett, which positively glows with light. This is a joyous, sensuous painting deftly coloured and of impressive dimensions, and this alone make it very memorable. That said, the wonderful photorealism of the onsie by Rebecca Hastings is so brilliantly painted, it too is unforgettable. Other works have political clout that imbues them with their own importance. Jandamarra Cadd’s impressive large-scale portrait titled Proud, situated at the entrance of the gallery, is a most impressive work featuring Aboriginal singer and songwriter Archie Roach. Sophia Hewson’s delicately painted (and drawn) work titled artist kisses subject also makes a profound and important statement – this time about gay rights. Hewson’s painting of the female artist kissing her female subject is extremely subdued in its loveliness. In stark contrast is the marvellous exuberance of Paul Ryan’s painting, rox, characterised by its masterly and confident use of paint. The artist uses impasto to create thick layers of colour and shine to achieve a freshness and immediacy.
Why is something as prestigious as The Archibald Prize great for the Coffs Harbour art scene?
The Archibald is arguably the most significant competition (outside of EMSLA, our own national still life prize) in Australia. It comes with great cultural baggage and is known to create dynamic conversations in the art world. It attracts Australia’s finest painters, and this year is no exception. Emerging and established painters are well represented. The latter include artists Vincent Fantauzzo, Wendy Sharpe and Peter Churcher.
What is the gallery doing for the launch of the Archibald Prize exhibition?
Ah, that’s a secret Melly. Only those who come to the opening will enjoy that particular surprise. All I am saying on that score is, “performance art”, sweetie! We anticipate this will be as amusing and as remarkable as the paintings.