The week before last I attended the opening of a national art award celebrating excellence in the medium of Drawing.
The Parkin Drawing Prize is a yearly competition that receives 400-500 entries and exhibits around 90 finalists at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington.
The award is run by hotelier Chris Parkin, who each year selects a different panel of judges to curate the finalists and select the winner.
Mr Parkin has no input in judging process, leaving all decisions up to the panel, which this year consisted of top gallery owners and artists from around the country.
I arrived at the gallery and joined the other guests for a drink and a squint at the finalist’s work. The audience was your typical assortment of well dressed White people enjoying a glass of wine, a canope and a nice wee dose of high culture.
The art works on show covered a huge range of approaches towards drawing, and you could tell that the judges had made a point of selecting some of the more unusual approaches to the medium; as well as exceptional examples of more traditional, illustrative drawing practice.
The show did have a very contemporary feel that would likely trigger the heck out of most readers.
There was one thing that seemed out of place. Down one end of the gallery was a pile of carpet dumped on the floor that gave a sloppy appearance to what was otherwise a well curated show. I didn’t think much of it at the time and continued doing the rounds.
I hadn’t had a chance to view even a fraction of the art work when the award ceremony began.
Ding ding ding
“If I could have everyone’s attention…”
We then had to endure some rather boring speeches from head honcho Chris Parkin and judge/artist of the minute Seraphine Pick, before the winner was announced.
After counting down 10 merit awards for highly commended works, the big moment came.
“And the winner of the 2017 Parkin Drawing Prize is…..Kirsty Lillico for State Block”
No one in the room really knew any of the titles of the art works, so at first the announcement did not really mean anything.
“Her work is the carpet down the end”, Ms Pick clarified.
It suddenly dawned on me that out of all 84 works in the gallery, the prestigious judges had selected the pile of carpet I saw earlier- it turned out to be an art work- as the best drawing in the room, and granted it the $20,000 prize money.
My brain jarred with cognitive dissonance. I knew the judges were “at the forefront” of contemporary art practice and would select something unusual, but this was something else entirely.
I felt the atmosphere in the room grow heavy as the other guests twigged on to who the winner was.
Mr Parkin re-took the podium and as he tried to speak the most awful microphone feedback filled the room. My theory is that this was the collective horror of everyone in the audience manifesting itself in the audio equipment.
“Well, to be honest this would not have been my first choice”, Mr Parkin said once the feedback was fixed.
Yeah, no shit. You now have to find a home for this monstrosity.
One thing of note was that the justifications by the judges for selecting State Block were not actually evident within the work itself. Seraphine Pick announced that the work was chosen because of it’s relationship to architecture and the housing crisis in Auckland; something she could not have known from just looking at the work.
I know for a fact that when artists enter the Parkin Prize there is no place on the entry form to describe the work; they can only submit a photo.
As it turns out, State Block is over a year old and has been exhibited before, which was when the narrative that the judges were regurgitating was first constructed.
So what basis were they judging the work on?
Over the last two weeks since the competition there has been a fair bit of controversy over the decision. The New Zealand public are beginning to get used to objects that they would not consider art getting given prestigious awards, but this still didn’t stop the comment threads lighting up with stern disapproval.
The main argument that critics have put forth is that State Block is not a drawing, and so should not have won a drawing prize.
I do not have much of an issue with whether this work is a drawing or not. I think a case can be made in today’s art world that Ms Lillico drew her lines with a knife, and the resulting work sort of resembles a drawing in space.
I also can’t really argue that the prior knowledge that the judges had about the work was the main problem, as no rules were broken, and it would be a pretty hard thing to police.
The main issue is that the work itself looks lazy and tired. It is poorly executed- not even in a hip ‘anti art’ sort of way- and appears like something a first year art school student would make. I can think of a dozen ways that the same concept could have been executed that would have been far more effective.
In the end Chris Parkin selected an elite panel of judges to add a new art work to his collection, and all it got him was a pile of crap that he is wondering what to do with.
“As I was walking around I thought, gosh, that’s a big piece. If that wins, where am I going to hang it?”
Says it all really.