FIN­ISH­ING TOUCHES

Af­ter 34 years as chief packer for the Art Gallery of NSW, Steve Peters is un­wrap­ping his last Archibald Prize en­tries, writes Penny Durham

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

‘It would be nice if we had a tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of Pack­ing Room Prize win­ners all around Aus­tralia, and I could go on the jun­ket — I mean the ed­u­ca­tional tour,” says Steve Peters. “They could bill it as ‘ What por­traits are sup­posed to look like’.”

On the Mon­day morn­ing of the cra­zi­est week of the year at the Art Gallery of NSW — Archibald sub­mis­sions week — Peters is the quiet, no-non­sense eye of the hur­ri­cane. In his trade­mark pink shirt and with Men­tos to hand, the packer-in-chief has been here since 5.30am and will put in 12-hour days for the fi­nal time. Af­ter han­dling — and fear­lessly judg­ing — tens of thou­sands of por­traits of Aus­tralian celebri­ties dur­ing his ca­reer, he is also un­wrap­ping not one but two por­traits of him­self. One of them is set here, in the con­fines of the gallery, sur­rounded by art, while the other came to life over two days in a very dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment, sev­eral hours away. The sub­ject of both por­traits has found him­self in the spot­light be­cause he’s re­tir­ing af­ter 34 years in the job, and 26 as the all-pow­er­ful judge of the Archibalds’ fa­mous con­so­la­tion, the Pack­ing Room Prize.

“The last thing I ever want to see again is a piece of bub­ble wrap,” says Peters, 60, who is crav­ing sleep-ins, time with his grand­chil­dren, golf and travel. He has in fact just re­turned from five weeks in Europe: Lon­don, Ber­lin, Florence, Venice, Ljubl­jana, Paris, Avi­gnon, Lyons, Salzburg. Food and wine were the fo­cus — not art. “Bah. You’ve seen one piece of art, you’ve seen ’em all, right?” he says with a wink.

By the end of the week 2154 can­vases will have ar­rived for the Archibald (por­trait), Wynne (land­scape) and Sul­man (genre, sub­ject or mu­ral) paint­ing prizes. Some oth­ers in­evitably will ar­rive at dead­line on Fri­day af­ter­noon, still wet, and be re­jected.

All the rest have to be cat­a­logued, pre­sented for judg­ing and kept track of, the re­jects col­lected, the fi­nal­ists even­tu­ally trans­ported off­site, repacked and shipped back to the artists (prefer­ably the ones who painted them — “they get a bit funny oth­er­wise”).

In the bal­let of fly­ing dol­lies and float­ing bub­ble wrap, it’s por­traits with in­stant im­pact that win the ap­proval of the pack­ers. They al­ways had their favourites, Peters says, but the Pack­ing Room Prize be­came a thing back in 1992 when SH Ervin Gallery came to har­vest paint­ings for its Salon des Re­fuses show.

“We had this big pic­ture of [for­mer La­bor for­eign min­is­ter] Gareth Evans rest­ing against the door. They came in and said, ‘Well that’s out for a start.’ I said, as a throw­away line, ‘You’re kid­ding — that won the pack­ing room prize.’ Well bug­ger me, they picked it [as a fi­nal­ist].

“The next day, pub­lic­ity here said: ‘To­mor­row you’re go­ing to be on the An­drew Olle break­fast show.’ I thought, ‘Bloody opened my big mouth here.’ ”

The Archibald Prize at­tracts some “se­ri­ous” art, and also much of what The Aus­tralian’s no­to­ri­ously strin­gent critic Christo­pher Allen de­scribes frankly as “kitsch”.

But Peters knows what he likes and has a re­fresh­ingly un­self­con­scious set of cri­te­ria for good por­trai­ture. He gives short shrift to the ab­stract, the ob­scure, the un­recog­nis­able.

“For us here in the pack­ing room the work has got to look like the sub­ject, and the sub­ject has to be some­one pop­u­lar who the av­er­age Joe can recog­nise: there’s some won­der­ful paint­ings made of doc­tors, who­ever, that are won­der­ful works but the av­er­age per­son wouldn’t know who they are. But No 1, the work’s got to be good, which knocks out 94 per cent of them.” The com­mon touch? “More a com­mon­sense touch,” he says.

Of the AGNSW’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion, he loves the old Aus­tralian gal­leries best. “Not a fan of con­tem­po­rary art. We had a Bi­en­nale here one year and silly bloody Yoko Ono put in these bloody trees. We had them in rows. We looked like a fran­chise of Flower Power.”

“Silly” en­tries to the Archibald, Wynne and hell, I’ve Sul­man have been nu­mer­ous. Some­times, he says, “you shake your head and think, ‘mate’ ”.

“There are some very nice artists and some who are well switched on. But some are just in an­other world: they don’t read in­struc­tions, they come in with a paint­ing that’s still wet, they leave hooks on the back of the work, then they come in and want their photo taken with their work — hold up ev­ery­thing in here while you take their pho­to­graph. Hello? It’s on ev­ery year, you’ve had 12 months to do it — take your bloody photo first.

“That’s what you say to your­self, any­way. We try to be as oblig­ing as we can.”

But it’s the palaver with trucks and dol­lies and pack­ing tape and bub­ble wrap and artists’ de­mands that make the prize spe­cial (well, that and the money at­tached: $100,000 for the Archibald, $50,000 for the Wynne, $40,000 for the Sul­man). It’s the only art prize in Aus­tralia judged in per­son with­out any ref­er­ence to dig­i­tal copies, says AGNSW head of ex­hi­bi­tions Char­lotte Cox.

“Oth­ers are judged on a jpeg at first and cut down to a short­list, which is then viewed in per­son, but this is the only prize in Aus­tralia that is judged in per­son from the get go,” Cox says. “You can’t see scale or tex­ture or true colour [in a jpeg] and some­times it’s those nu­ances that make a work re­ally spe­cial. Like the por­trait of Barry Humphries [last year’s Archibald win­ner by Louise Hear­man] that had a lit­tle se­quin on his eye­brow that sparkled in the right light — you never pick that up in a dig­i­tal im­age.

“It’s an ex­pen­sive ven­ture to get the work

Steve Peters says he has been for­tu­nate to un­pack the likes of Monet, van Gogh and Pi­casso

Peters with Betina Fau­velOg­den, whose por­trait of Ge­orge Calom­baris, cen­tre, won the Pack­ing Room Prize last year; Peters with Tim Stor­rier and his paint­ing

The Mem­ber, Dr Sir Les­lie Colin Pat­ter­son KCB AO, which won the same prize in 2014

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