65th Blake Prize: thoughtful, but the numinous was hard to find

We visited  Casula Powerhouse this week to see the Blake Prize.

I’m always delighted to reach this quiet bushy spot so close to Liverpool, with its own bell-bird glen. I enjoy the venue, with its soaring ceilings and the indigenous map built into the floor.

The exhibition this year was thoughtfully presented but to me it largely lacked depth, or sometimes relevance.  I have to agree with the oft-curmudgeonly John McDonald here. Moving away from an insistence on Christian expression (which was the original premise of the prize, back in 1949) was of course both necessary and appropriate if the Prize was to remain in any way relevant.

 

This year’s winner: Tina Havelock Stevens, Giant Rock, 2017 (still from video)

 

 

No problem there, but many of the works just failed to engage me. McDonald rightly notes that ‘religion’ is all about a group of believers, whereas ‘spirituality’ is a more individual idea. Again, that’s not necessarily a problem.

Many people nowadays weave their own sense of the sacred from whatever scraps they can find – bits of childhood magic, the rise of a post-institutional animism arising from ecological concerns; feminist practices that overlap with neo-paganism. There is also aesthetics and the consoling power of beauty.

I have found some new (to me) artists however, whose work is well worth mentioning and following.

I enjoyed the video by Nasim Nasr 33 beads (unworried) # 2 showing an anonymous woman, her face totally obliterated by her hair, with spotlit  hands holding and working worry beads – traditionally a male practice. Gradually other women’s hands appear and also work the multiple strings. In the end the beads are violently torn apart.

Still from the video 33 beads (unworried) 3 #2 by Nasim Nasr

Nasr is an internationally recognised Iranian artist now living in Australia.

 

I was disturbed and I guess, diverted  by Greg Semu’s   Dead body of Christ in two parts, a photographic self-portrait in two frames, referencing Holbein the Younger’s astounding ‘coffin-cam’ work from 1521.

 

Hans Holbein the Younger, The body of the dead Christ in the tomb, oil and tempera on board, 1521.

 

 

Greg Semu, Dead body of Christ in two parts, photograph in two frames.

 

The image I’ve had to use here was an earlier iteration, in one piece. The Blake entry  is literally in two framed pieces -one piece is his head, neck and shoulder, the other has the remainder of the body.

The pieces sit either side of a corner,  accentuating the unusual proportions. Float mounted against a blood red mat with lush, cinematic lighting a la Bill Viola , it features Semu’s Samoan body tattoos and opaque contact lenses so he looks rather shockingly like a doll.

Semu uses his own body and that of other indigenous people in some interesting video and photographic works  referencing and  deconstructing Christian iconography.

My own favourite though was far from sensational. Mark Tweedie had two entries in the show, both understated and painterly.

I loved ‘Now I lay me down’, a modest size painting of his dying grandmother in bed.

Mark Tweedie, Now I lay me down, oil on canvas, 41 x 31cm

Quiet, economical, calm and contemplative, it  brought me closer to prayer than anything else.