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Art prize tests religious convention

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Brisbane artist, Leonard Brown, is winner of the annual Blake Prize for Religious Art with a work titled If you put your ear close, you’ll hear it breathing. It’s a painting of subtle colour variation and interesting texture, with repeating patterns designed to express the inner stillness and silence of mystical experience. Brown’s faith journey has traversed Catholicism, Anglicanism, and most recently Eastern Orthodoxy and threads of these three Christian traditions inform his work.

The Blake has never been far from controversy, and this year’s prize, announced in Sydney last night, is no different. The work of Sydney artist Rodney Pople, which was highly commended by the judges, is a provocative painting dealing with clergy sexual abuse.

Entitled Cardinal with Altar Boy, its setting is the interior of a beautiful baroque church, and it portrays a headless prelate dressed in ecclesiastical finery, with an altar boy in his lap. The boy’s genitals are vaguely visible through his white surplice. The pose of the couple is reminiscent of the Pieta, of the Virgin cradling the crucified Christ.

The Blake Prize was established in 1951, and is named after eighteenth century eccentric English poet, mystic and artist, William Blake. On the homepage of the Blake Society website, it’s described as ‘the oldest prize in Australia dedicated to spirituality, religion and cultural diversity.’

In explaining its controversial nature, Chair of the Blake Society, Rod Pattenden, says in his statement about the prize on the website, that in contrast ‘to art prizes that are awarded for distinct subject areas such as landscape or portraiture, the Blake has always invited a much more open, personal and idiosyncratic response, so much so that it has earned the criticism, ire, and sometimes applause of the critics and public alike.’

There are four categories in the prize. Most important is the main Blake Prize worth $20,000. The other prizes, the John Coburn Emerging Artist Award, the Blake Prize for Human Justice, and the Blake Poetry Prize are each worth $5000.

The video above features interviews with the three winners of the visual art prizes, and their works, and some shots of Rodney Pople’s highly commended work.

The John Coburn Award was won by young Melbourne artist, Michelle Sakaris. Her work, entitled Font, is an enlarged photo of – believe it or not – an aluminium egg cup. But the way it is framed, positioned and lit makes it resemble a gleaming brass baptismal font, or a gold chalice. It lifts and transforms this mundane item into the realm of the sacred and iconic.

And the Human Justice Prize was won by Sydney based artist, Fiona White, for her very confronting painting called simply Age 36. It depicts the true story of Aboriginal man, Ronald Mitchell, who was tasered by police in Warburton, Western Australia, in July 2009. The taser hit him between the eyes, and, because he’d been handling petrol shortly before, he ignited in flames, and was severely burned.

As in previous years, the finalists in this year’s exhibition encompass a wide variety of genres and content. There’s everything from traditional artworks with devotional content, to pictures, sculpture and video art that question and confront conventional notions of religion and spirituality. This is its appeal, that it examines the important and deep questions in life from multiple points of view. Long may the Blake Prize be comforting and alarming, prickly and soothing, revealing and confounding.

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.



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I wonder what William Blake would think about his name being associated with a Prize for Religious Art in the Antipodes.
After all he did write: "Art is the tree of life. Art is Christianity"
But then it would seem to me that the religious or the spiritual impulse that drove Blake has very little in common with with the self-obsession of many modern artists and poets.

This is not to say they are not spiritual or religious beings. But rather that many of their works, poetic or artistic, are more concerned with the concrete and individual than with the spiritual and universal; more about Mammon than about God.
Despite the above remaks I am glad that the Blake Prize exists and that it provokes discussion on the meaning of human existence.

Uncle Pat | 03 September 2010