Spitting image: Can drool be art?

Justine Varga and Shaune Larkin Image copyright Tweed Regional Gallery
Image caption Artist Justine Varga with judge Shaune Larkin and her winning portrait

Justine Varga's portrait of her grandmother has caused controversy after winning the Olive Cotton Award - Australia's top portrait prize worth A$20,000 (£12,000). The portrait, called Maternal Line, contains no face - and the artist used her grandmother's pen scrawls and streaks of her saliva to create the work. But is it art?

Jackson Pollock made scrawly abstract drip paintings; 70 years later Justine Varga has made a scrawly abstract dribble painting. That's progress for you.

People complained about his work back in the 1940s, and people are complaining about hers now. So it goes.

Personally, I couldn't care less if she uses spit or sawdust to make her pictures (Warhol made images using urine), just as long as they are good.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Jackson Pollock was well-known for his abstract drip paintings

It's a little unfair of me to judge a large photographic portrait from afar, on a small computer screen splattered (non-artistically) in cooking fat, but I can see it is not rubbish.

There's a touch of Twombly about granny's scribbles, and the way in which the green-grey rectangle appears to hover over the mauve background has a Rothko-like feel.

Can I detect a pair of cartoonish eyes in the top right-hand corner, or am I seeing things?

Whatever, I can't unsee them now - or the gnarly fingers just to their side, nor the translucent, ghostly figure looming below. Granny is beginning to give me the heebie-jeebies.

I'm being too literal.

Image copyright Tweed Regional Gallery
Image caption A closer look at Maternal Line

Varga's idea here was to create an inner portrait, so it doesn't matter what granny actually looks like, this is about what she is like.

I'm guessing from the combination of colours, texts, and overall composition that she is an unstuffy, unconventional lady, possibly prone irreverence, and - on occasion - spiritual.

I think the image has an ethereal quality. We are definitely not in "my five year-old could've done that" territory here.

This is a picture made by someone who knows what she is doing, with the gumption to take a different view of a ubiquitous genre.

I like it.


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