The 60th Blake Prize Exhibition
QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, 28 October - 23 December.
This year’s Blake Prize Exhibition includes 24 photographic, sculptural, digital and paper-based works, short listed by judges Pat Brassington, Julian Droogan and Blair French from more than 1,100 entries. In contrast to other national art prizes (in landscape or portraiture, for example) the Blake’s subject matter is inherently abstract. The result is a hybrid reflection on the eclecticism of modern religious experience, at once deeply both comforting and provocative.
The sentiment that underpinned the Blake’s original vision to reinvigorate church art was “only art which was figurative could communicate religious feeling and intention”. That vision was thrown out in 1961 when Stanislaus Rapotec won the Prize with an abstract work and the prize – thankfully – realigned its objectives The 1960s to 1980s were a latent period in the Blake’s history, followed by two decades of reflexive rebuttal that, in its attempts to reclaim self-expression, sunk the Prize into controversy on more than one occasion. The 2011 edition of the Blake emerges from this history with renewed interest and vigour, with a record number of submissions and an ambitious touring program that will extend into the new year.
The Blake is an intimate exercise in self-representation. For all its spiritual overtones, the Prize’s emphasis is ultimately on the individual; what Rev. Rod Pattenden, Chair of the Blake Society, describes as an exploration of “the nature of the human person through the backdrop of speculative ideas that range from the limitless nature of transcendence to the particular concerns of social injustice.” The concept of broadcasting one’s spirituality contrasts with a western understanding of religion as a deeply personal endeavour, restrained to the privacy of quiet prayer, the solitude of the confession box and the closed-circles of common belief. This year’s winning work, Khaled Sabsabi’s Naqshbandi Greenacre Engagement, challenges this by portraying a communicative, dynamic engagement. The work is built on three months of footage from Naqshbandi Sufi ceremonies at a western Sydney scout hall. Whittled down from large LCD screens to unobtrusive TV sets which sit on the gallery floor, it is an immersive piece and the only work to incorporate sound.
The Blake has come a long way in shaking off the parochial attachment to Christianity for which it has often been criticised, welcoming a greater diversity of artists than ever before (including three Islamic artists in Winning or Highly Commended positions). Despite this, biblical references still dominate – from Luke Roberts’ overt quotation of crucifixion imagery to Brian Robinson’s subtle use of the Noah’s Ark narrative and Lisa Lee’s adaptation of a passage from Matthew. Other potent Christian characteristics include a strong use of symbology (Joyce Evans’ Saint Ross), iconography (Dawn Stubbs’ G9) and the triptych format (Danie Mellor’s Art of Memory). Works range from literal representations of spiritual leaders – such as Adam Cullen’s rendering of a very tired looking Mary MacKillop – to reflections on the divinity of nature in Carla Hananiah’s Refuge and Murray Fredericks’ Hector 9. Khadim Ali’s delicate work in gold leaf is introspective, while other artists are preoccupied, and justifiably so, with the way their spirituality is perceived by others. Abdul Abdullah’s digital print, Them and Us (Winner of the Human Justice Award) mashes two loaded symbols, the Southern Cross and the Islamic star and crescent, on the chest of a man consumed by shadow. Disappointingly, the 4th Blake Poetry Prize is not integrated with the main exhibition. Instead works by Robert Adamson (Winner), Todd Turner and Verity Laughton (both Highly Commended) are presented as a side-note on didactics and iPod voice recordings.
It is impressive to consider how far the Blake Prize has come in the last 40 years, particularly in relation to embracing female artists, multiculturalism and new media forms. The 60th anniversary exhibition continues to explore contemporary spirituality in both its aesthetics and the dialogues it produces.
 Rosemary Crumlin (ed.), The Blake Book: Art, Religion and Spirituality in Australia. Victoria: Macmillan Art Publishing, 2011.