Facing Australian portraiture head on

Despite being decades old, a couple of standout works make Flinders University Art Museum’s exhibition Head-to-Head: Shifting Perspectives in Australian Portraiture a timely visit.

It would be easy enough to walk past Mike Parr’s monotoned self-portrait, a collaboration with printmaker John Loane, hanging alongside the doorway above a table of pamphlets as you enter Flinders University Art Museum. Tucked into the least visible corner of the gallery space, the portrait – a finely detailed etching in which the artist has elongated and flattened his features – possesses a certain unsettling stillness.

A pair of Christian Thompson’s large photographic works on the adjacent wall are more likely to catch your eye. But if you do well enough to spot the Parr, it is a more than worthwhile work to spend some time on. With your nose a few inches from the picture, it reads like an aerial landscape. Only when you take a few steps back does a face begins to appear within the lines. It’s title, The Map, suggests the artist has approached the task of drawing his own likeness in the same way one might set out to cross haphazard terrain.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Awelye 1994 screenprint, ink on paper, edition 4/36, 85 x 56.5 cm Gift of Rodney Gooch (The Rodney Gooch personal collection) collection of Flinders University Art Museum

When Parr made this work in 1987, he wrote in an artist’s statement that the practice of self-portraiture was undoubtedly an egotistical one. Even so, Parr has continued to wrestle with his own image over a career that spans almost 50 years. His struggle to convey the metaphysical through the physical has led to an ongoing series of turbulent and uncomfortable portraits. Much like the fraught with risk performance work that he is famous for, his portraits too live on perilous ground. “I sort of traumatise myself through my own impulses and urges,” he told The Saturday Paper in 2016, “and it’s that traumatic form I reconceive as political.”

I would like to ask Parr how he thinks about self-portraiture today, in a world where social media has ‘rebranded’ vanity as a socially acceptable personality trait. Perhaps he would argue that art could serve as a counterpoint, as a reminder that looking in a mirror can be something other than self-objectifying.

Another work on display at the Flinders gallery is by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who famously began her 10-year career in the late 1980s at the age of 70 (she died in 1996). Kngwarreye’s Awelye 1994 is a self-portrait in the most abstract sense. A screen print of several thick black horizontal lines against a white background, visually it mimics the ceremonial body paint of Anmatyerre women. Like many of Kngwarreye’s work, Awelye suggests her personal identity hinges on her cultural identity, that she is simply a brushstroke within the landscape of her people and their history.

Head to Head exhibition installation view
Head to Head exhibition installation view

Both Parr’s and Kngwarreye’s works are on display in Head-to-Head: Shifting Perspectives in Australian Portraiture, a pared-down version of the exhibition that was shown last year at Flinders City Gallery before it permanently closed in June. There are other fine works in the show – among them a Gordon Bennett diptych, Polly Sumner Dodd’s photograph of the delightfully crinkled and criss-crossed face of the activist George Tongerie, and a strange, small 18th century portrait by an unknown artist of a tiny, prim-looking woman appropriately named Mrs Littlewood.

However, Parr’s and Kngwarreye’s self-portraits remained the standouts for this reviewer. Parr is an artist who grapples with his identity, while Kngwarreye found hers through the wisdom that came from living a lifetime in one place. Yet there does seem to be a line of connection between the two. It has something to do with a shared idea that the self can sometimes lie closer to a landscape – varying, unpredictable, changing depending on the light – than a portrait.

Head-to-Head: Shifting Perspectives in Australian Portraiture
Flinders Art Museum, Bedford Park
Until Thursday, July 6
artmuseum.flinders.edu.au

Header image:
Christian Thompson, Museum of Others (Othering the Explorer, James Cook) (detail), 2016, c-type print on metallic paper, 120 x 120 cm, © courtesy the artist and Michael Reid Sydney + Berlin

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.