For many years now Sydney’s Archibald Prize has been considered by art-world insiders to be little more than a media circus. While there may be a surfeit of art prizes around Australia now, the Archie, with its potpourri of celebrities and attention-grabbing artists, attracts the most headlines.

But it may have hit an all time new low this year with a potential entry that “sings.”

It’s probably a good thing that Peter Smeeth has a day job because it is unlikely that attaching a CD recording to a canvas is going to impress the critics, unless of course this portrait is acclaimed as a new-fangled style of Conceptualism.

The NSW-based GP and part-time painter has executed a moderately capable portrait of opera singer Amelia Farrugia. Smeeth has entered the Archie on several occasions and missed out on the winning mark every time. This year he’s obviously decided to bamboozle the judges by adding a soundtrack. A slim CD player attached to the rear of the canvas is rigged up to assault the viewer with Farfrugia’s versions of Strauss and Puccini.

One may well ask what Smeeth is thinking. There is little likelihood of the Art Gallery of NSW hanging a painting that features the high notes of a Soprano singer. Although it would be guaranteed to attract attention, it is unlikely to go over well with the curators of the exhibition, or at least so one would hope. But strange decisions seem to be part and parcel of the Archie. With the general decline of quality that the Archibald has suffered from in recent years, Smeeth no doubt thought “anything goes.”

That is not to say there have not been some excellent works in the Archie. Indeed, last year’s winner, Marcus Wills, with his stunning The Paul Juraszek Monolith (after Marcus Gheeraerts) was a decidedly fitting choice.

Three other recent winners – John Olsen, Adam Cullen and Lewis Miller have all won with powerful works that stretch the art of portraiture.

But rumours abound about the politics of the selections and there can be little disputing that the Archibald, despite its immense popularity and crowd-drawing power, is becoming a decidedly mundane institution. Perhaps every painting should come with a soundtrack – we could have Van Halen next to Beethoven, the Sex Pistols going up against Miles Davis. Would certainly make for an interesting afternoon in the normally sedate halls of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey