Australian Artist Receives Prize from Behind Bars
By Chloe Mandryk
Sydney artist, Nigel Milsom, has won the AUD 150,000 acquisitive Doug Moran National Portrait Prize—now in its twenty-fifth year—from behind bars. Milsom’s works channel the condition of loneliness or the singularity of the human experience—a sensation that may be all too familiar for the artist, who is currently serving a six-year jail sentence for robbery and assault he committed while on a drug binge in 2012.
Last year’s prize went for the second time to fellow Sydney artist Leslie Rice, with his dark and art historical Self-Portrait (with the Muses of Painting and Poetry) (2012). Milsom’s Uncle Paddy (2012) is equally morose, with a wash of black oil, shards of grey and marbled white paint, applied with a Futurist turn of hand to depict a man in a black suit jacket fading into the background. Folds of skin appear flat and painterly at the same time. The formal and conceptual qualities of Milsom’s work were judged by a panel including artist, Ben Quilty, and art historian and curator, and Member of the Order of Australia (AM), Daniel Thomas.
By a strange coincidence, Juniper Hall, Paddington, the venue selected for the awards ceremony of the country’s largest art prize, was built by an emancipated convict and perhaps this nod at getting a second chance resonates with Milsom’s case. Some attribute his crimes to emotional struggles following a series of personal losses—his sister, friend and artist Adam Cullen and curator and mentor Nick Waterlow all died in succession.
Milsom’s ability to produce intensely personal works, that expose both the artist and subjects’ inhibitions, is due to his commitment to painting close acquaintances. “I don’t like to paint people that I don’t know,” Milsom said in 2010. “Uncle Paddy” was a close friend of the artist’s late grandfather—one of the only non-family members to attend his funeral—and while painting the portrait Moran said: “I got a sense that he has learnt to sit with his feeling of sadness which has given him a greater strength and wisdom.”
Kerry Crowley, Milsom’s art dealer, accepted the prize on the artist’s behalf at a ceremony on October 23. Speaking optimistically she said: “The question he likes to put to himself and to his practice has always been, can painting be continually stretched further into the future? The Moran Prize is a big 'yes' to his question. I know Nigel will be thrilled.”