900 Eyes – 450 painted portraits of visual arts practitioners

Manly Art Gallery and Museum - 2008
Tweed River Regional Art Gallery - 2009
Maitland Regional Art Gallery - 2009

Above – a selection of painted portraits from 900 Eyes – and some photographs of the work installed in the various galleries.  


The late Robert Hughes said he didn’t believe I could paint portraits from photographs; that I needed sittings and time to establish a relationship with the subject.  This was said in the foyer of Mosman Art Gallery minutes before he was to give a talk in 2007 in conjunction with the release of his latest book.  I was standing with my digital camera in hand, hoping to take his photograph to include him in my show of painted faces.  At that stage I had painted over 200 people in the visual arts from the photographs I had taken, so was surprised with his attitude.

The project is not about conventional portraiture, nor is it the culmination of a personal relationship  between artist and subject.  It is meant to be viewed as a total: a sea of faces which themselves make up a whole portrait.  It is also an arbitrary archive, partially documenting the visual arts world centred around Sydney.  I wanted my subjects to be recognisable, to come together like a large silent gathering of the arts community all clustered in one room.  Each face staring out from the canvas, unsmiling, eyes fixed on the viewer;  a reversal, especially for the artists, looking back at their audience.

There were no sittings involved.  I searched out painters, sculptors, photographers, print makers, video artists, gallery directors and staff, conservators, writers and collectors, taking two quick passport-style head and shoulder digital photographs of each.  With little warning, no one had time to prepare themselves for the camera.  In this way, everybody, no matter what their role or perceived status, is equal.

A major theme of the exhibition is the fluidity of time.  Every moment eases into the next, until the previous ones only exist as fragmented islands or highlights in our memories.  These faces represent that moment made concrete.  Like most people’s, my own life seems to hurtle along at an accelerating tempo.  If I was to have spent time individually with each of my subjects, to have made preliminary drawings and scheduled repeated sittings, I would have needed a life time to complete this project.  By using a pocket sized digital camera as my go-between, I was able to work quickly, collecting multiple faces, returning to my studio and beginning immediately.  As one painting was completed, another was begun. The physical act of making this work has been my own compression of time.

In the years since this project was first exhibited at Manly Regional Art Gallery and Museum in 2008, quite a number of the portrait subjects have passed away.  John Coburn was one of the first to go. I visited him in a nursing home a couple of months before he died at the age of 81.

With this project I put the focus back firmly on the artists and the invisible practitioners who support the arts: framers, conservators, writers, curators, the staff in art supply shops, as well as the artists.

These paintings signify a brief moment made concrete, and are reflective of a time that has already passed and will never be repeated.

Susan O’Doherty