In Conversation: The Lester Prize judges 2020

Serena Cowie The conversation (detail).

Winner | The Richard Lester Prize for Portraiture 2020 – Serena Cowie The conversation (detail). Subject: Maria Arvanitis and Alexandra Perrott. Oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm.

Published by AGWA    |   9 November 2020
One of Australia’s most prestigious and anticipated portraiture prizes returns to AGWA from 31 October to 29 November.

A style that exhibits the very fundamentals of the human condition, from the heroic to the despicable, the humble and deplorable, the principled and the fallen – portraiture allows us to understand not only the subject but ourselves.

The Lester Prize is an opportunity to truly celebrate the talent and vision from 40 of Australia’s most exceptional portraiture artists, right here at AGWA.

The individuals tasked with deciding who takes home a share of nearly $85,000 prize pool are AGWA’s Guest Artistic Director Ian Strange, Art Historian and Professor Dr. Clarissa Ball and Director of John Curtin Gallery Chris Malcolm.

A decision certainly not made lightly, we caught up with this year’s panel to understand just what they look for in a portrait, the significance of the style and how their individual experiences shape that very first glance at a piece.

Ian Strange

Ian Strange – Guest Artistic Director, Art Gallery of Western Australia


In what way does personal identity and experience come into your approach when judging a piece? How do they affect your perceptions?

There’s a huge diversity in the material approaches and the artists as well and so while I have personal preferences in terms of technical ability and materials that I have an aesthetic preference for, I think coming in to judge is more about an open understanding and a more open dialogue about how you judge the works.

As Guest Artistic Director for AGWA, what do you think makes the Gallery a good match for exhibiting The Lester Prize?

The Lester Prize is an effective way of finding new artists, understanding new artists and bringing painting and portraiture into the Gallery. Portraiture is accessible but it also has such a long and fascinating history and I totally understand that fascination as well.

You mentioned about aesthetic preferences, what are your preferences in terms of style and approach?

There’s obviously technical excellence in painting which is always so impressive. It’s not always about being photo-realistic but also about material excellence and understanding the materiality of paint and approach.

I think you can always understand when an artist has lived with a painting and really worked on it, you can tell when someone has been really present with the creation of a painting I believe and there’s a level of material excellence in its delivery and confidence.

Ian Strange
Guest Artistic Director, Art Gallery of Western Australia

That’s something I really enjoy seeing is people pushing mediums in so many different directions.

I have a total bias for subject matter and how people can push form and lighting and create different tonal shifts and moods with paint as well. And particularly with the finalists this year there’s such a diversity with the painting of the works.

As someone who has a background as an artist, how do you balance viewing the artist’s intention and your natural response?

I’m wearing two hats in that regard and the two different perspectives that I can bring to it. One in that I do have a background as a practicing visual artist and as a painter but also in my role as the guest artistic director at the Gallery. I think normally when I look at paintings…I like to just quickly look at everything and really gauge what gives me a guttural reaction and what are the works I keep going back to.

So there’s some works that will – and I think a lot of people have these experiences in a gallery – just stand out to you immediately because of their colour, their composition, and then those works that are quieter you begin to like them and love them more.

Art is not a sport and you don’t have to make a didactic decision based on a binary of best or worst, which in itself isn’t true to the nature of art making. It’s about a conversation of judges and creating an understanding of preference.

Clarissa Ball

Dr Clarissa Ball – Art Historian, Head of Fine Arts and History of Art UWA


How do you feel your personal and professional experiences as an arts educator and historian shape the way you approach and respond to portraiture?

My viewing of portraits is nearly always informed by the art historical genre of portraiture. In one way or another, every portrait is situated within the history of portraiture and draws on the language of the genre to register individuality and to construct identity.

The act of painting a portrait is not just a negotiation with the traditional demands of likeness, psychological insight or seductive address, but more so is a negotiation between artifice and actuality.

Dr Clarissa Ball
Art Historian, Head of Fine Arts and History of Art UWA

Such painterly mediations and meditations sometimes put pressure on the traditional genre of portraiture and it is on those occasions, when a portrait sits both within and beyond the parameters of the genre, that I find the relationship between the portrait and the broader stream of art history most exciting and intriguing.

What are you most looking forward to about being a judge for The Lester Prize 2020?

Beyond looking forward to seeing the breadth of facture and stylistic approaches I am most interested in seeing if there are any common themes or leitmotifs being deployed in this unforgettable year of the virus.

In what ways do you think the parameters – both technically and figuratively – of portraiture have changed in recent years? How do you incorporate this into your judging process?

In the opening decades of the 21st century, two notable ‘trends’ have emerged. First, the standard rhetorics of description and depiction that have long informed a mimetic model of portraiture have given way to a depleted physicality and loss of self so that the very nature of what it is to be human is being called into question.

Attached to this, the growth in new media, digital imaging and bio-art is redefining our understanding of portraiture. 

Secondly, the efficacy and authority of portraiture is being challenged by the representation of socially marginalised figures and, in turn, the dictates of conventionalised depiction both within and beyond portraiture are being overturned. Both of these developments pose uncomfortable questions for society at large and particularly for Australia with its concern for notions of national and cultural identity. Whether or not The Lester Prize entries suggest similar views remains to be seen.

What would be your advice to those exploring and seeking further understanding of portraiture?

Keep looking, keep seeing, and, most importantly, keep making portraits!

Chris Malcolm

Chris Malcolm – Director, John Curtin Gallery


Given your extensive experience, you’ve probably seen your fair share of competitions and portraiture talent – what makes The Lester Prize a unique competition?

I have been invited to judge many art prizes over the last 25 years and one of the interesting characteristics of The Lester Prize is that the finalists are selected by an independent panel of experts that assess all of the initial submissions without any supporting documentation.

This means choices are purely determined by the strengths of the artworks alone and independent of artist’s reputation.

Chris Malcolm
Director, John Curtin Gallery

How have the events of 2020 changed your approach to viewing art and, subsequently, your approach as a judge?

2020 has obliged all of us to reconsider everything about how we engage with everyone that our operation as a public art gallery and collection involves notably artists and our audiences. In some ways it has focused my mind more on how artists convey inner feelings which has had an interesting impact on my reading of the works in this year’s prize some of which are specifically addressing the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the artist.

How important is your first impression of a portrait? Can you talk us through what goes through your mind?

First impressions are always critical points of experience regardless of what that experience is.

Our senses are fine tuned to the form and expressions of the human face and not far behind are our perceptions of body language, so we have very sophisticated capacities to analyse and forensically consider each other just by what we see. This can be entangled with prejudices and preconceptions so it is always a challenge to try to leave that perceptual baggage behind when viewing portraits in particular.

What are you as an individual hoping to bring to The Lester Prize panel this year?

I welcomed the opportunity to be involved in this year’s judging panel and hope to bring some value to the judging process from my 30 years plus experience working in Art Museums with some of the most acclaimed artists from all over the world to reflect on the strengths of contemporary Australian arts practice.

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On Saturday 27 August, the Gallery is open 10am-3pm only as we prepare for the AGWA Foundation Gala supporting women in the arts. Some exhibition access will be disrupted with two Tracks We Share ground floor galleries closed. AGWA Rooftop bar will be closed, reopening at 2pm Sunday. Details