Cal Wilson’s portrait wins the Packing Room award at the 2023 Archibalds

A portrait of comedian Cal Wilson by Cairns-based artist Andrea Huelin won the packing room award, a sub-category of the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture.

The Clown Jewels, featuring the New Zealand-born comedian in an elaborate headdress and purple silk, scooped up the $3,000 prize, which is now in its 32nd year. The packing room gong had previously been decided by former Art Gallery of New South Wales head packer Brett Cuthbertson. For the first time, this year’s winner was chosen by three gallery owners, Timothy Dale, Monica Rudhar and Alexis Wildman.

Related: 2023 Archibald Award Finalists: Sam Neill, Archie Roach, Claudia Karvan and more – in photos

Huelin said the inspiration for the portrait came from Wilson’s Instagram posts during Melbourne’s Covid-19 lockdowns, when she shared elaborate headdresses she’d made with toys, ornaments and a hot glue gun.

“His poses reminded me of my sister and I making funny faces in the mirror as kids and I could tell we share a similar sense of humor,” she said. “I posted a congratulatory comment and Cal replied admiring my paintings, so I asked her if she would sit down for a portrait.

“The formal portrait pokes fun at the 19th-century style women were once painted in, capturing her cheeky expression and glittering headdress.”

Wilson said: “I haven’t stopped smiling since I heard the news. I adore Andrea’s work and really enjoyed sitting down for her… I’m thrilled that something so frivolous has been immortalized with such grandeur and skill.”

Wildman said Huelin’s painting “jumped at us as soon as it arrived” and that it was “a great, joyful portrait of someone who has brought so much laughter to Australia”.

Huelin said she feels privileged to be the first artist chosen by new waiter pickers following Cuthbertson’s retirement last year after 41 years in the business.

“It means a lot to me as a regional hub artist…being included in the Archibald will really help me feel more connected to my industry,” she said.

Also revealed on Thursday were the 57 finalists competing for the $100,000 Archibald Prize, Australia’s oldest national portrait award, with self-portraits and artists painting other artists dominating the field.

The prize was established in 1921, with the subject matter “preferably of some man or woman distinguished in art, letters, science or politics”, and there has been a long Archibald tradition of artists painting themselves and each other other. This year is no exception, with nearly half of the finalists submitting self-portraits or artist portraits.

There is only one scientist among the models: University of New South Wales quantum physics professor Michelle Simmons, painted by Charles Mouyat; plus two politicians: Sydney Independent MP Alex Greenwich by Jason Jowett and City of Sydney Councilor Yvonne Weldon by Luke Cornish; and three who could be considered people of “letters”: Katherine Hattam’s novelist Drusilla Modjeska, Angela Brennan’s founding Saturday Paper editor Erik Jensen and Judith Sinnamon’s Guardian Australia policy editor Katharine Murphy .

More than a dozen portraits feature notable entertainment personalities, including the late musician Archie Roach (painted by Anh Do), actor Claudia Karvan (painted by Laura Jones), and singer Daniel Johns (painted by Matt Adnate) .

Only two finalists feature sports figures: Zoe Young’s NRL footballer Latrell Mitchell, and John Hillier’s boxer Harry Garside.

The AGNSW received 949 entries for this year’s Archibald, approaching the record set in 2020.

Related: Too tight? Too big? No name: Sydney’s new art gallery weathers criticism in its first few months

An artist earned the distinction of being the subject of a painting for the Archibald, as well as being a finalist in the $40,000 Sulman Prize for Subject Painting, Genre Painting, or a Mural Project, the finalists of which were also announced Thursday, along with the $50,000 Wynne Prize for landscape painting or figurative sculpture.

A portrait of Mostafa “Moz” Azimitabar by 19-year-old artist Charlotte Ruth is a finalist for the Archibalad. Azimitabar’s submission for the Sulman Prize, No Friend But the Mountains, borrows the title of a book written by another Iranian Kurdish refugee, Behrouz Boochani. Azimitabar is known for his use of coffee and toothbrushes to create his work: these were the only materials he had to work with during his six-year detention on Manus Island.

Ruth is not the youngest artist to cut Archibald. In 2017 a group of 301 boys aged five to 12 from Sydney Grammar’s Edgecliff Preparatory School had their joint work suspended. Goodbye Sir! it was a portrait of former Sydney Grammar headmaster John Vallance.

And in 1946 a 15-year-old Rolf Harris was selected as a finalist for his painting, Portrait of a Schoolboy.

Finalists for all three awards will be announced on May 5 and will be on display at AGNSW from April 29 to September 3. The exhibition will then tour Victoria and regional NSW.

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