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From Archibald to Argentina

The Weekend Australian Financial Review
28-29 November 2009
Katrina Strickland

William Dobell retreated to his sisters farm on Lake Macquarie in the mid-1940s after the infamous court battle over whether his 1943 Archibald Prize winning portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith was a portrait or a caricature.

He had won the case but the media glare that came with it had "an inhibiting effect on his work", according to McCulloch's Encyclopedia of Australian Art. He won two more Archibald prizes, along with countless other awards, but avoided the spotlight for the rest of his life.

Sixty years later another artist, Craig Ruddy, was taken to court over his 2004 Archibald prize-winning portrait of actor David Gulpilil, this time weather it was a painting or a drawing. Ruddy also won; the judge dismissed the case, saying a court was not the place to decide such matters. In 2006 he put the contested portrait up for auction at Sotheby's where it fetched a staggering $312,000 including buyer's premium, more then double its $150,000 low estimate.

A year or so later Ruddy, too, left the city where the brouhaha had played out, fleeing not to rural NSW but South America, where he has been living on and off for the past 21/2 years, mostly in Buenos Aires, Argentina. "It was a breath of fresh air to get to South America, I did feel it would be good for me to get some distance," concedes the 41-year-old artist. "I was concerned (the win) was a bit premature, I'd only been working full-time as an artist for two years. At times I've felt it would have been better if I was more established when I won. You read a lot about it being damaging for artists, but looking back on it now, it was fantastic."

Ruddy is back in his home city of Sydney for a show of new works, which opened on Wednesday night at Richard Martin Art in Woollahra. His biggest exhibition since leaving Australia and his first devoted to South American content, it features 29 works created during a seven-week stint in Rio de Janeiro earlier this year. "I fell in love with Rio, with the energy of the place, particularly compared with the doom and gloom of everywhere else. Buenos Aires is an incredible city, it's very beautiful, but it's got a very heavy energy, you have to pick yourself up all the time and fight to do simple things," he says. "Rio is so different, there's a really heightened spirit, everyone's walking around with smiles in their faces."

The paintings were inspired by Rio's Ipanema beach, where one morning Ruddy became became entranced by two young men practising gymnastics on the water's edge. The tide was out and there was a light haze over the water. "They're a homage to the ocean. I grew up on the beach in Sydney and after being in Buenos Aires I realised how much I'd missed the ocean," Ruddy says. 

"Ipanema Beach is incredible Particularly for its racial integration; you see every single skin tone possible on that beach." Ruddy took video and photographs of the men, creating the artworks back in his two- bedroom apartment from this footage, just as his Gulpilil portrait played with style, so too do his new works, albeit in a different manner. They feature acrylic paint on canvas, washed out so as to look almost like watercolours, over which is placed a heavy panel of glass, onto which he has sketched the beach scenes in archival pen. The idea behind putting on top of the canvas was to give the impression that "everything is floating", to represent the joy but also the fragility of life in one of the world's most dangerous cities. "Normally I'd do everything from life, and I was concerned that I'd lose the emotion and essence in doing the paintings from photos, but i don't think i did," he says. "I wanted to capture the beauty of the environment but also the danger, poverty and struggle in Rio, where people say you need 10 eyes in the back of your head. The constant sense of danger makes you much more aware of, and appreciative of, life. In Australia I think we can become a bit complacent, we're so secure."

The works nearly didn't arrive in Australia in time for the opening; they were held up at customs in Brazil until Ruddy agreed to pay an extra amount to get them released, an "emergency tax fee" that equates to about $3000. "They said it would be 20 days before they were released and the show was opening in 13 days, so I would have payed anything."

Ruddy has created a commissioned work for a couple living on Ipanema Beach, but not surprisingly his best market is in Australia, where thanks to the Archibald win, people know his name. Priced between $6500 and $33,000, 15 of the new works had sold before opening, and a number are on hold. He has not shown in South America but hopes to look for a gallery when he returns to Argentia in March. "I've heard you're better off going to Sao Paulo because the galleries are bigger and there's more of an art scene there," he says.

While in Australia, Ruddy hopes to visit the Sydney collector who bought his Gulpilil portrait at auction. He won't confirm or deny it, but rumour has it the same collector also owns the Dobell portrait that caused such a stir all those decades ago. If so, it's likely to be a pretty good collection; that Dobell portrait sold at auction in 1998 for $225,500. Ruddy's Gulpilil is arguably his best work by a country mile, although he says a self-portrait that he sold many years ago is, to his mind better. His work since has been quite different; he has steered clear of creating another work in the style of the Gulpilil picture, perhaps put off by all the drama that surrounded it.

"I was hoping to continue with a full body of work in that style but it hasn't felt right and I have been holding off until it does," he says. "There was way too much going on and too many other people wanting to get involved, wanting a piece of it. Too many distractions."

Is he any closer to it? "Yes, I think I am," he says.

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