2016 Marie Ellis OAM Prize for Drawing: Exhibition Review

Friday, August 5th – While the Brisbane Showgrounds was once again swamped by farm animals, show-bags, and carnival rides, Jugglers Art Space treated art lovers to the annual Marie Ellis OAM. Now in its 7th year, the award honours the late Marie Corella Ellis OAM, who was an avid promoter of art and long time resident of Fortitude Valley. The competition has consistently promoted and encouraged the nations artistic talent, and this year was no different. With over 200 entries, as Jugglers Administrator Aaron Micallef mentioned, picking 25 finalist was certainly no easy task. But choose they did with this years finalists being: Aleta Lederwasch, Alex Louisa, Alison Parkinson, Amy Dynan, Andrew Quilty, Caity Reynolds, Carolyn V Watson, Cathy Drew, Courtney Spence, Domenica Hoare, Elena Holzworth, Hesam Fetrati, Jude Roberts, Kristian Fracchia, Laura Kennedy, Leigh Camilleri, Liana Evans, Mark Feiler, Megan Tan, Melissa Boughey, Michael Armstrong, Michael Simms, Oksana Waterfall, Sean Hutton and William Platz.

Indeed, given the caliber of work provided by these 25 artists, choosing winners must have been even more difficult. Taking first place was Michael Armstrong with Traits of living (Dying). Commenting on identity and conflict, the illustration placed two naked female figures over the top of each other, one more visually prominent, the other faded in a ghost-like fashion. The more prominent woman conveying a sense of liberation and freedom due to her joyous prayer-like posture; broad and tall in her stance, confident about her exposed body. Contrasting this, the subtler faded woman, almost like a ghost, turns her back on the viewer; hunched over and hiding her face, she avoids the viewers gaze. Second place was awarded to Hesam Fetrati’s Detention Centre, which depicted a complicated arrangement of astronauts with t.v heads, Anglerfish, and ship masts. This surrealist illustration with its symbolistic imagery commented on forced migration, cultural exploration, and loss of freedom. Elena Holzworth received an honour award for her work Pegged. An illustration of world-class quality, this young high school student will hopefully have a bright future in art, while her honour award a perfect example of Jugglers continued dedication and encouragement of young, unknown artists.

Both the ground floor and the 2nd floor were used to showcase the 25 artists, which proved a clever idea as this helped disperse and circulate the flow of patrons. Loyal Juggler patrons from years gone would remember the ground floor as a large single room. However times have changed, with the construction of a wall that now divides the lower floor into a smaller front room and a larger back room. The concrete floors, high ceiling, and reflective walls made for a loud and joyous clutter of noise, as the cluster of happy patrons filed around the galleries ground floor. A mass of cushioned seats – large, back-less, and square – had been placed in the back room, and enabled patrons to sit, discuss, and admire the works of art. The upper floor’s smaller size, lower ceilings and wooden floors created a far more intimate environment, enabling patrons to engage in more lengthy and personal conversation.

The human narrative, specifically the individual’s narrative, was a consistent topic for artistic exploration. Several works made stark and confronting comments on mortality, and the fleeting security of personal health. Notable examples being Andrew Quilty’s Self portrait after being bashed , a series of six self portraits drawn after being beaten up; Liana Evans’ Drawing you from a million pieces illustrated a particle of human corpse as seen under a microscope; and, Laura Kennedy’s If These Royal Leaves Could Talk (Diptych) two paintings of reed-like plant leaves that symbolised the plants she looked at while in hospital with cancer. Kennedy’s work spoke to another topic explored by many other artists – the natural environment and how humans interact with it. Leigh Camilleri’s King Island–low tide transitions illustrated abstracted figures on an undefined landscape, and conjured ideas of cityscapes built by a body of water; Cathy Drew’s My sound not your vision commented on human perception of environment, and the un-reality of the digital world; Jude Roberts’ Geo-graphis (drawing the earth) gave abstracted physicality to the environment via rubbings of Wallam creek; Alex Louisa’s Swimming Over Eucalyptus depicted a fish swimming through eucalyptus leaves; Courtney Spence’s Left Behind, illustrated a skeleton of indiscernible form in order to comment on human-environment relationship; Melissa Boughey’s 2 weeks in the desert: camp kitchen drawings Yalara, three works of central Australia created en plein air; and, Caity Reynolds’ My Hubris and Stumbling Pillars, a series of works showing a child’s interaction with chairs and windows as symbol for life’s many unknowns and tensions. For me, the prevalence of femininity was the most notable and artistically interesting theme, several works commanding attention to female narrative, empowerment, and figure. Alison Parkinson’s Abolution showed a naked woman, seated and brushing her hair, in a moment of truthful reality; similarly, Mark Feiler’s Reclining Girl (Mara) illustrated a partially naked women in blue rags, and bought attention to moments of intimacy; and Domenica Hoare’s Morning light, blue shades illustrated a women and two children in a kitchen, possibly their mother, and brought to mind the struggle of urban living and the ‘invisible’ work force.

While the exhibition’s thematic through-line was the human narrative, the varied expression of this theme undoubtedly made curatorial decisions difficult, and resulted in a slightly intermingled curatorial presentation of themes. However, given the purpose of the event and the overwhelming quality of works, curatorial narrative was not missed and, judging from the celebrations of the general public, Jugglers staff, and certainly myself, a validating and enjoyable evening was had by all. We all tottered around the gallery spaces, drinking and eating our fill, swooning each other with banter, while occasionally relaxing in the brisk air of the outside courtyard. More to the point, the talent presented at this year’s Marie Ellis OAM was testament to Jugglers now 14 year commitment to Australian art and, I suspect that once the day-after hangovers subsided, many will now be looking forward to next year’s Marie Ellis OAM.

By Adam Buchanan 2016