Reviews //

The Young Archie: Better than the Archibald?

If you want emotionally compelling art, skip the main walls of the Archibald Prize and head straight to the Young Archie.

'Nature boy, Earth boy' (self-portrait) by Lev Vishnu Kahn - Age 5-9 category winner.

Exhibited annually at the Art Gallery of the NSW, the Archibald Prize is Australia’s oldest art prize, heralded as the artistic ‘face’ of Australia. The prize was first awarded in 1921, funded by J.F. Archibald’s will bequest. A total of $100,000 is awarded to “the best portrait, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics”. But I would argue that the Young Archie competition, exhibiting portraits from 5 to 18-year-olds alongside the Archibald, is more emotionally compelling. 

Judged by the Gallery’s trustees (a selection of artists, financial advisors, philanthropists, and even a vice-chancellor), to early 20th-century criteria, the Archibald is, to put it plainly, a bit of a rort. It may turn into a political battleground, celebrity face-off, or corporate showing-off – most commonly, an ungodly amalgam of all three. The prize subscribes to the ethos of medieval court painting: immortalising and mythologising men to the historical record. Painters often strategically choose their subjects, opting for a subject who is, in some way, distant from themselves. Finalist Paul Newton’s portrait of Hugh Jackman and Deborra-Lee Furness is the paradigmatic Archibald finalist; the physical likeness of an unchallenging public figure. Winners, finalists, and, often, their subjects receive acclaim of immense cultural calibre. It must be noted that despite greater diversity emerging within winning and finalist works, the prize remains mostly white and representative of Australian elites. 

Metres from the lifesize rendering of Jackman lay far more compelling artworks. Positioned at the end of the illustrious exhibition, the Young Archie competition judges children’s portraits of someone important to them. The prize was created in 2013 and requires A4 to A3 work on paper; unmounted, unframed, and two-dimensional. There is a sole guest judge, always a previous Archibald, Wynne, or Sulman finalist or winner – already a more professional adjudication than the Archibald.  

In contrast to the Archibald, the children’s works are endearingly earnest. They are humorously expressive, or photorealistic portraits that commonly evoke ‘I can’t believe a child made this’ from their viewers.  The children effortlessly achieve the naivety and sincere emotional expression missing from some of the Prize’s adult finalists. Each mark brims with emotion rather than art school training. The portraits are characterised by a close connection between the sitter and painter. Instead of celebrities, most works depict family members or the painters themselves. This year’s winner of the 5 to the 8-year-old category, Lev Vishnu Kahn, drew himself amidst the environment in his colourful work. Claudia Quin Yuen Prusino, the 9 to 12-year-old category winner, rendered her gong gong in warm browns and careful yet striking markings. Jasmine Goon won the oldest age category for a photorealistic portrait of her non-verbal brother. Other finalists include James Charlesworth’s ‘blue-haired grandma’, chronicling his grandmother’s accidental dye job. Jeremy Zhang’s crayon drawing depicts his love for his dad, Vinnie Macris celebrates his growing self-confidence in charcoal and ink, and Liam Finck opens up in his Van Gogh-inspired self-portrait. Elsewhere, Hannah Nouri honestly and brightly illustrates her close friend. The artists’ statements communicate real emotion, unlike their verbose adult counterparts. Vinnie Macris says of his self-portrait, “I think I look handsome and a little bit weird at the same time.” A highlight was Benson Wells’s description of his brother: “I didn’t use to like him much because he was boring, but now I like him because he is funny and he never tells me to be quiet.” This collection brims with emotional fervour and authentically records human connection. 

While I could continue harping on about children’s art, my point remains that next to the white, ego-filled walls of the Archibald, the Young Archie is more emotionally resonant. These intimate, unpretentious works remind all audiences to appreciate those around them. 

It can be argued that the Archibald and its younger brother aren’t comparable because the latter’s theme allows for more figurative styles; depicting psychological realities over physical likeness. However, the next generation of Australian artists sketch their siblings in the humble coloured pencil and their superhero dreams in markers, and such artists are indisputably worth honouring.

While embedded in a corporate and political institution, the Young Archie supports children’s artmaking, and, though it might take the setting aside of early 20’s pride to acknowledge it, we all benefit from seeing children’s art. The Archibald tends to immortalise celebrities and carve painters into Australian history, but its younger sibling celebrates children’s psychological and relational worlds. The two prizes certainly aren’t in the same league, not because of differing requirements, but because children’s art can be far more touching than lionised adult painters and their lauded subjects. It reveals our foolishness, that we are surprised by child’s ability to create something that makes us feel deeply. Amidst a corporatised art show, Texta-rendered portraits remind us of what truly matters. We can all make art and should do more of it. As Lev Vishnu Kahn remarks: “I had no idea I was capable of creating something so beautiful.”