When the Dobell Drawing Prize was discontinued by the Art Gallery of NSW in 2012, a real disservice was done to Australian art. Though the name has carried through to a series of curated exhibitions held every two years – the Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial – it is no longer open entry, relying instead on the expertise and judgement of curators. As a curated event, it now incorporates aspects of sculpture, watercolour, film and performance as a way of ‘strengthening’ the importance of drawing to art practice and has, as a result, lost the weight of serious recognition that such a prestigious art prize gave an increasingly neglected medium.
It’s a shame. Drawing is an integral part of all art practice, where the imagining, brain-storming, mapping, planning, conceptualising, playing and experimenting takes place. It is a foundation skill upon which all art rises, and is the one art form that we all utilise to some extent in daily life, regardless of our artistic abilities. We doodle on notepads while listening on the phone or sitting through meetings, we make line drawings when trying to describe something visual and sketch mud maps when giving directions. It is one of the simplest ways of communicating our ideas, and the most common of art forms. Sculpture, painting, photography, printmaking, ceramics…these are things that we might never experience in our lifetime, nor have use for, but from the moment we’re given crayons and coloured pencils as children, we begin a lifelong relationship with drawing.
Perhaps its preparatory use in the creation of art, combined with its accessibility to us all, means it is perceived as somehow less impressive. But drawing is a fine art form in and of itself, with a long history of visual expression that existed well before language as a tool for communication. Even now, we learn to draw before we learn to write. It is an intimate and intense art form, unforgiving of artists’ mistakes and trials, with little chance for distraction by texture and movement. Flat and modest compared to other media, drawing requires precisely honed skills to really make a piece sing. The introvert of the art world, drawing demands that the artist be confident enough to let the works stand alongside bigger, bolder mediums.
The Art Gallery of NSW was criticised by artists and audiences alike when they withdrew the Dobell Drawing Prize, for good reason, but fortunately not all our institutions have been so ruthless with the medium. The Marie Ellis OAM Prize for Drawing, held annually at Jugglers Art Space in Brisbane, is one such event.
Unlike other drawing prizes, the Marie Ellis OAM Prize continues to grow and strengthen as it enters its sixth year. With a cash prize of $4000, it is not an insignificant award, providing both financial support and a widely promoted chance to critique current art practices. In a relatively small city like Brisbane, it also affords artists an opportunity for close peer review and support, as evidenced in the warmth and genuine interest of the opening night crowd this year. There was an overwhelming sense of pride, excitement and…I want to say safety. Maybe protection? It felt like a safe place for an artist to expose themselves creatively. This year is a particularly strong show, with not one of the 25 finalists unable to hold its own against the other entries. And with 14 of those finalists being women, it is also a show that bucks current art trends by presenting more female than male artists.
Negotiating the crush of people made viewing the artworks a little tricky, especially the smaller and more intricate pieces, but it was worth the jostling to get in because there are some absolute crackers this year with real commercial potential. Standouts for me were Carolyn V Watson’s lovely semi-abstract entry, and a vast, organic work by William Platz (previously shown at Body Politic in Philadelphia earlier this year). Honourable mentions to Kirrily Anderson for her delicately beautiful drawing, and Robert Vagg, whose monochrome faces reminded me so much of the other Robert, Robert Dickerson. Overall winner, unsurprisingly, was Jeremy Eden with an entry that displayed all the aspects of drawing I mentioned earlier. It is a punchy work that shows total command of his chosen medium.
I don’t profess to be an expert in the life of either William Dobell or Marie Ellis, nor am I particularly sure of what happens after we die, but I’m willing to wager this – wherever William and Marie reside these days, I bet she’s the one punching the air with delight, while old Bill wonders what’s become of the legacy he left behind.
The Marie Ellis OAM Prize for Drawing
Jugglers Art Space
103 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley
Until 21 August 2015