Entertainment Arts First-time finalist wins Archibald’s Packing Room Prize
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First-time finalist wins Archibald’s Packing Room Prize

Through the looking glass by Tessa MacKay Photo: Archibald Prize 2019
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A self-taught artist has won the 2019 Packing Room Prize with her first finals entry in the competition – a hyper-real portrait of actor David Wenham.

“As soon as I saw it I was like ‘That’s the one I want – thank God’,” head packer Brett Cuthbertson said of 27-year-old Tessa MacKay’s work.

Entitled Through the Looking Glass, the portrait arrived on the final day of Archibald submissions.

The Packing Room Prize is chosen by the Art Gallery of NSW staff, who receive, unpack and hang Archibald Prize entries. Mr Cuthbertson has a 51 per cent say in determining the winning portrait.

“I love that your eyes are drawn to the pairing of the salt and sugar, and the glass vase in the foreground. That David’s in it is a bonus! Maybe that makes it is Still life with David?” he said.

MacKay, who is from Perth and has no gallery representation, said the news of her win was still sinking in.

“I was still processing the fact that I was a finalist,” she said.

Art Gallery of NSW head packer, Brett Cuthbertson with artist Tessa MacKay Photo: AAP

MacKay’s painting shows Wenham sitting in a cafe in the Sydney suburb of Newtown, not far from where he grew up.

“[It’s] about capturing David’s essence in a city that he loves,” she said.

“The portrait is about stepping into David’s world. I like to think that his somewhat pensive eyes, lost in thought, are another kind of ‘looking glass’ that we’re peering into.”

MacKay met the actor several years ago through her writer-director husband.

For his part, Wenham said it was a privilege to sit for the painting.

“Aware of my fondness for sitting, people watching and general daydreaming, Tess had a very clear vision of what the look, feel and purpose of the portrait should be,” he said from Prague, where he is filming.

He also noted the portrait’s concept was complicated, with its use of reflections and landscape.

“Once the location for the portrait was locked in I couldn’t really fathom how on earth Tess was going to pull the painting off,” Wenham said.

“Windows within windows, multiple reflections and numerous light sources added a degree of technical difficulty that was beyond my brain processing capacity”.

Tessa MacKay and David Wenham in Sydney. Photo: Tessa MacKay

The actor ought to know: He has been the subject of two previous portraits (Jordan Richardson’s David Wenham and hat in 2018 and Adam Cullen’s 2000 Archibald Prize-winning Portrait of David Wenham).

The Archibald Packing Room Prize, which awards $1500 to the winning artist, reflects popular sentiment. However, no winner has gone on to take the $100,000 top prize – leading some artists to consider it ‘the kiss of death’.

The Archibald is one of Australia’s most prominent art prizes, awarded annually for the portrait of someone ‘distinguished in art, letters, science or politics’ and painted by an Australian resident. It is determined by the trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Last year Melbourne artist Yvette Coppersmith took out the Archibald with a self-portrait. It was her fifth entry in the competition.

Yvette Coppersmith’s 2018 Archibald-winning self-portrait. Photo: National Gallery of NSW

Featured among this year’s entries are playwright Nakkiah Lui, singer Megan Washington, and Bidjigal elder and artist Esme Timbery.

The Archibald Prize exhibition opens to the public on May 11 at the National Gallery of NSW. It will tour Australia from September.

Dates can be found here 

Check out some of the other finalists for this year’s Archibald Prize

Mariam Veiszadeh by Angus McDonald. Sitter: Mariam Veiszadeh
Tjuparntarri – women’s business by David Darcy; sitter: Tjuparntarri (Daisy Ward) Photo: Archibald Prize 2019
Christian by Thea Anamara Perkins. Sitter: Christian Thompson
Annabel by Jordan Richardson; sitter: Annabel Crabb.
Art and war by Anh Do; sitter: George Gittoes
Faustina by Kim Leutwyler. Sitter: Faustina Agolley
Crow (Maddy Madden) by Mathew Lynn. Sitter: Madeleine Madden
Benjamin Law: happy sad by Keith Burt. Sitter: Benjamin Law
Mao's last dance by by Jun Chen; sitter: Li Cunxin
Leigh by Mirra Whale. Sitter: Leigh Sales