When Sydney-based artist Julia Gutman missed a call from the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), she assumed it was because she’d left something in the cloakroom at the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman finalists’ lunch at the gallery the day before. In fact, the call was to congratulate her on being named the winner of the $100,000 Archibald Prize, for her portrait of her friend, singer-songwriter Montaigne (Jess Cerro).
She was still in shock a few hours later as she stood before the media throng and assembled artists to accept the prize, which she had dreamt about winning since she was 12 years old, describing it as a “surreal” experience.
Thanking Cerro, she said, “Thanks for being such a distinctive artist, humble person and effervescent friend. I really feel like this work painted itself because Jess is so full of insight and character and artistry.”
At 29, Gutman is one of the youngest artists to win the portrait prize in its 102-year history, after Nora Heysen won in 1938, aged 28 (she was also the first female artist to win). It is the first time Gutman has been a finalist in the Archibald Prize and her win marks the 13th by a woman.
Gutman and Cerro became friends a few years ago through a share house in Annandale. Titled Head in the Sky, Feet on the Ground, the painting is one of the larger portraits in the exhibition (nearly two by two metres) and is particularly arresting up close for its intimate feel and 3D texture (it was created using oil, layered found textiles and embroidery).
Gutman says she hopes the portrait captures the contrast between Montaigne’s huge online teen fan base and presence (they’re particularly famous on live streaming platform Twitch), and their introverted persona: “a duality of what’s outside and what’s inside, what’s public and what’s private”.
Montaigne came to the world’s attention when they represented Australia at the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest. They described it as an “insane honour” to be the winning sitter. “I sure didn’t see it coming, not because I don’t believe in Julia’s incredible talent and warm heart, but because you just never think this stuff is going to happen to you,” they say. “Thank you so much to Julia for seeing me as a worthy sitter for her beautiful vision.”
Gutman’s win capped off an unforgettable morning at the AGNSW, where the winner of the $50,000 Wynne Prize for landscape painting or figurative sculpture, Zaachariaha Fielding, broke into joyful song – encouraging the crowd to sing along with him – after accepting the award for his painting Inma. He then explained, “The work is music, and I am music. My work is a celebration and is a song in itself and the sound comes from the community.”
Another large work, at around three by two metres, the acrylic-on-linen painting depicts the sounds of Mimili, a small community in the eastern part of the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia, where Fielding is from.
The lead vocalist in popular electronic music duo Electric Fields, this is the interdisciplinary artist’s first time as a Wynne finalist. He weaves Pitjantjatjara language into his work, using the teaching between grandchildren and their grandparents as a way to express his view of Country.
Sulman prize winner and Senior Luritja artist Doris Bush Nungarrayi accepted the $40,000 award with a speech of over 10 minutes spoken completely in language, with no translation. You could have heard a pin drop.
Nungarrayi won for her captivating work Mamunya Ngalyananyi (Monster Coming), yet another large painting of synthetic polymer on linen depicting several brightly coloured Mamus, the ominous and malevolent spirits that terrify the Anangu.
Nungarrayi is a first-time finalist in both the Sulman and Wynne prize. She describes as “cheeky ones” the Mamus who usually hide in hollow trees and underground dwellings and can shapeshift into various forms, including the human figure.
While the Archibald and Wynne prizes are judged by the AGNSW board of trustees, including artists Tony Albert and Caroline Rothwell, this year’s guest judge for the Sulman Prize was artist Nell, who said of Nungarrayi’s painting: “I really love how each figure in Doris Bush Nungarrayi’s painting has an individual character that is simultaneously scary and cheeky. They look like they are popping off the canvas and coming toward me, just as I am magnetically drawn to them.”
Born in Haasts Bluff 250 kilometres west of Alice Springs, Nungarrayi lives in Papunya in the Northern Territory. She paints vivid memories, stories and dreams from her life.
The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prize finalists are on display at the Art Gallery of NSW until September 3 before touring to Victoria and regional NSW.
This article was updated on May 16, 2023 to reflect that Montaigne uses they/them pronouns.