11 June 2024

Artist Karen Black celebrates Wollongong art icon Vivian Vidulich in Archibald show

| Kellie O'Brien
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two women and a painting

Sydney artist Karen Black (left) painted Wollongong Art Gallery staff member Vivian Vidulich for the Archibald this year. Photo: Supplied.

Sydney artist Karen Black may not have won this year’s Archibald Prize, but she’s thrilled her portrait of Wollongong Art Gallery staff member Vivian Vidulich will celebrate her long-running support of the arts world as it hangs in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Fellow Sydney artist Laure Jones’s painting of writer Tim Winton won the portrait award on 7 June and will sit alongside Karen’s painting, which captured Vivian’s well-known personal style, from 8 June for a three-month exhibition at the Sydney gallery.

Her portrait will also be joined by two Illawarra artists who were finalists in the two other major prizes: Austinmer artist Chris Zanko, who was a Wynne finalist for landscape paintings; and Thirroul’s Nick Santoro, who was a Sulman finalist for mural, subject or genre paintings.

“It’s great to have an actual work hung in the Art Gallery of New South Wales,” Karen said.

“And I’m really excited for Vivian because it’s nice to celebrate her life and who she is and how she’s supported everyone in the art world.”

While neither could quite remember when they first met, it was about 2017 when Karen was at Sydney’s Artspace as a studio resident and Vivian was working at the Wollongong gallery, where she has been since 1999.

As a three-time Archibald finalist who has always chosen to paint a woman, Karen said choosing someone was an instinctive thing.

“I was thinking for ages I would love to paint her, because, just look at her – her long hair and her outfit, and she always looks like that,” she said.

“I thought a great way to celebrate someone is to actually make it tangible and put it in a painting and make it fun.”

The pair was out together, laughing and having a joke, when Karen asked Vivian if she could paint her.

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“She was like, ‘Oh, yeah, sure’ and I was thinking, ‘Is she being serious with me?’,” she said.

“I think I then asked her the following week, and said, ‘I actually do want to paint you for the Archibald’ and she said, ‘Oh, lots of people have asked, but I’ll let you do it’.

“I felt really privileged to be the person she said yes to.

“It did put a certain amount of pressure on me, because I thought, ‘Geez, I’d better make an OK painting’,” she added, laughing.

Vivian said she had a “deep respect” for Karen’s practice and that was why she decided to allow her to paint her.

“We’ve been friends for many, many years and I knew she would do a fine painting because she totally gets me and so I had no hesitation in saying yes,” Vivian said.

Karen said she undertook a lot of research before starting and admitted what she produced for the Archibald wasn’t her first attempt.

“I made one painting last year, and I didn’t enter it because I didn’t feel it was good enough and wasn’t ‘her’,” she said.

“All the research I did, and then doing a total of four paintings, helped me with that last one to pull the whole thing together.”

Through the portrait, Karen wanted to capture the sensitivity Vivian has around everything visual, because “she is so visually recognisable”.

“I didn’t even understand that’s the outfit she wears everywhere – no-one’s ever seen her in anything else – so that was important to me,” she said.

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She said Vivian’s stockings were covered in animals from the Miocene period, her hairdo featured a 1960s beehive at the front, she wore handmade shoes based on Roman sandals, and her ear piercings featured crosses, hangmen and a bird that had an eight-metre wingspan and lived thousands of years ago.

“The clothes are often all different eras,” she said.

“She’s anti-fashion – that’s just her look that she invented many years ago, which I like that anti-fashion part about her.

“I was just fascinated with that, so I started out thinking, I really need to do the whole body. You couldn’t just do the face, because it’s a whole look.”

But it wasn’t just about the physical look of the Wollongong arts icon.

“I wanted her to be in motion, because she’s always everywhere I go,” she said of regularly seeing her at exhibition openings.

“She’s at everything and yet she lives in Wollongong, and I think, how does she do that?

“She’s 72. I hope I’ve got that energy at 72.”

Vivian said Karen herself was quite stylish, but Karen laughed, describing herself as a “lazy stylist”.

In fact, Karen’s background was working in the opera and theatre for many years when she was younger, as a costumer maker.

“I’ve always made things with my hands and painted when I worked in the opera and theatre,” she said.

“Then after I had children, I went and did a fine-arts degree and that’s how I ended up where I am.”

The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prize winners and finalists will be featured in an exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 8 June to 8 September. You can also view the finalists online.

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