|Sam Harris by Zoe Young.|
The painting echoes the pose of Manet’s Olympia – but the subject is an indigenous Australian woman surrounded by European books, that comment on the European traditions of art, and perched underneath the leg of the day bed, holding it level, is a copy of John Berger's Ways of Seeing. The symbolism of this was what first struck me when viewing the painting at the Archibald prize exhibition. It is not subtle. It offers continuity with a tradition and, at the same time, a re-contextualisation and critical comment on it. The only analysis of the painting that I found so far identifies the reference Manet’s work but concludes that Young's painting is shallow and unconsidered:
It’s a likeable, albeit lightweight work, but I don’t understand what Young is trying to tell us by putting so many books into the picture. Does she want us to know she is a good reader? Is she suggesting Harris is not just a pretty face? Either way, the gratuitous sprinkling of titles acts as a distraction, not an enhancement.
The titles aren't a distraction; they offer an interpretive lens to the entire composition. I don't think Young merely wants to show that she is a good reader. The allusion to Manet establishes continuity, the selection of books on European art and australiana reemphasises both continuity and recontexualization, and a book about the social context and purpose of art invites social comment on the traditions of art in Australia and the representation of women in art and indigenous women in particular. How could an art critic miss these connections?