It’s art, but is it a painting?
When is a painting not a painting? That question has baffled Australia’s finest legal minds after a disgruntled artist sued trustees of the country’s most prestigious portraiture prize for awarding it to what he claimed was a drawing.
Craig Ruddy won the Archibald Prize in 2004 with his depiction of actor, David Gulpilil, created largely from charcoal. Tony Johansen, who had submitted a portrait of a Sydney drag queen, Carlotta, protested that the work breached the rules of the Archibald bequest, which stipulated that it be painted.
Johansen, who had entered eight times without success, took the Art Gallery of New South Wales to court. The judge, John Hamilton, dismissed his application to have Ruddy’s work stripped of its award. But he refrained, no doubt wisely, from ruling on whether it was, indeed, a painting.
The Supreme Court had heard two days of submissions from barristers who brandished dictionaries going back to Samuel Johnson to support their rival definitions. Against a backdrop of the offending portrait, which stood propped up against a wall of the courtroom, they argued about whether black – the work’s dominant tone – was a colour.
The artist himself took the stand to describe how he had first sketched in charcoal on panels of floral wallpaper, then layered over repeatedly with black pigment, aquarelle pencils and acrylic paint. Hairspray and varnish were also used by Ruddy, who described his materials as mixed media on the entry.
The case featured seven barristers, four solicitors and two expert witnesses. One witness, a Brisbane art valuer, was questioned about the Archibald’s 1978 winning entry – a triptych made from glue, plaster, pen and ink, a glass eye, a hypodermic syringe and cigarette butts, as well as oil paint.
He was asked whether the inclusion of cigarette butts made the work less of a painting. That would depend on the amount of butts, he replied. – The Independent
o This article was originally published on page 15 of Cape Argus on June 18, 2006