MICHAEL Bell, announced the winner yesterday of this year's Kilgour Prize, has been a prominent Newcastle artist for so long that it is difficult to describe him as anything other than a doyen of the art world.
At 61, he is part of a broad generation of performers, painters and musicians whose careers began in the 1980s, and who were seen collectively as part of a Newcastle push when their output brought them to national attention. Some left town for brighter lights long ago.
Others, like Bell, are lifetime Novocastrians, whose sense of place has been central, more often than not, to their work, which has given them reputation and earnings enough to survive, if not always thrive, as practising artists.
The Kilgour Prize is named after a Newcastle painter, Jack Noel Kilgour (1900-1987) a contemporary and friend of the famed William Dobell, who was born a year before him and who died in 1970.
Kilgour's bequest to Newcastle Art Gallery provided for what began in 2006 as a biennial competition with a $30,000 first prize, and which is now an annual event with a first prize of $50,000 and a cache as one of Australia's major competitions for figurative and portrait painting.
BELL CURVE: The artist in recent years:
After numerous entries - and a people's choice award, one year, he says - Bell's entry Starting the After Party (Two Self Portraits) - was described by the judges as a "whimsical and reflective work, most definitely of the times".
Bell does not describe the painting in terms of the defining subject of our time - COVID-19 - but he acknowledges the anxiety reflected by his adult image, and a realisation that he is "not as strong" as the seven-year-old at the rear of the painting, balanced on a log waving flags.
Although far from alone, the public side of the art world - the big exhibitions, the opening night parties, the auction industry - has been forced into quietude by the coronavirus.
But in studios everywhere, artists are still at work, absorbing the influences of the time, consciously or not, into their output.
Almost 200 years after the arrival of the photographic camera, we no longer "need" art to record the world around and inside us, but the persistence of painting in all of its schools and guises reveals an elemental human desire.
Michael Bell has painted himself, but shown us ourselves, looking into the fraught uncertainty that is 2020.
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