Exhibition review: Salon des Refusés 2021

The alternative Archibald and Wynne Prize Selection makes its Adelaide debut.

The Salon des Refusés has been part of the excitement surrounding the annual Archibald and Wynne Prizes since 1992. The works in the Salon are chosen by a panel from the thousands of entries received each year by the Art Gallery of NSW for the Archibald Prize for portraiture and Wynne Prize for landscape painting. The works are selected for their quality, diversity, humour and experimentation, and their examination of contemporary art practices, different approaches to portraiture and responses to the landscape. This year’s panel comprised Max Germanos, curator of 3:33 Art Projects; Katherine Roberts, senior curator at the Manly Art Gallery and Museum in Sydney; and Jane Watters, director of the SH Ervin Gallery.

Read: Exhibition review: Tarnanthi

Traditionally, the Salon is exhibited at the SH Ervin Gallery, run by the National Trust and perched high up in The Rocks area of Sydney. This was to be the case this year, but life intervened and the Sydney Salon was closed after just three weeks. And so an agreement was reached with the David Roche Foundation to bring 47 of the 57 selected works to go on show in Adelaide.  

The David Roche Foundation House Museum offers an impressive gallery space in the heart of North Adelaide with its high ceilings, grand chandeliers and a wonderfully calm atmosphere. The works look dramatic placed in a thoughtful hang on the gallery’s dark walls.

Collectively, they make a colourful and enjoyable exhibition and display range of styles, subjects, sizes, and techniques. But the totality of the exhibition is clearly greater than the sum of its parts; individually, the works are surprisingly lacklustre. Given the prestige of the Archibald and the Wynne, and the huge number of entries (938 for the Archies and 660 for the Wynne this year), one has to wonder if these really are the best of the rest? Perhaps this is always the case with group shows chosen by a panel, and I know there is nothing the art world enjoys more than a good stoush over the Archibald selections, but this really is a rather disappointing reflection on the state of visual art in Australia. Overall, it’s fair to say these works are safe and familiar and not daring or experimental. 

One or two pieces do stand out in the exhibition. Craig Ruddy’s large-scale portrait I’m Gulpilil continues his exuberant style and makes a bold centrepiece as you enter the exhibition. The Long Soiree, a self-portrait by Liz Stute, has a beautiful insouciance to both subject and style. Michael Bell’s messy self-portrait Church Street Studio is refreshingly candid and highlights the artist’s chaotic inner and outer worlds. And Harley Manifold’s curious painting Gareth, showing Warrnambool artist Gareth Colliton in the bath, is expertly rendered. 

Tania Wursig’s big and bright work Chakita, a confident portrait of Sydney arts-world power couple Nikita Majajas and Charlie Villas with their much-loved bulldog Ms Peaches, won the Holding Redlich People’s Choice Award. Voting for the Award, valued at $3,000, was conducted online this year for the first time. 

Amongst the landscapes, Jasper Knight’s The Departed, a big blue canvas of skyscrapers and palm trees, is arresting in its assured style and Jennifer Keeler-Milne shows a wonderful way with nature in the meditative Spring Wattle lll.

The Salon des Refusés 2021 is well worth the ticket price to spend some time in this beautiful gallery space pondering the state of Australian art. And most of the works are for sale, with prices ranging from just $800 for a small oil on board of artist Elizabeth Nelson by Mark Dober to $42,000 for the Craig Ruddy, so you can even take home a piece with some prestigious provenance if something catches your eye.

Salon des Refusés 2021
The David Roche Foundation, Melbourne Street, North Adelaide
Tickets: $10-$12

Salon des Refusés 2021 is on display until 11 December 2021

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.