Portrait might be art but we don't have to like it

16:00, Feb 23 2010
Gallery director Avenal McKinnon stands next to a portrait of Clayton Weatherston
FACE OF EVIL: Gallery director Avenal McKinnon stands next to a portrait of Clayton Weatherston which is entered in the Adam Portraiture Award.

It was a face behind a crime that appalled the nation. Now it is a work of art.

A portrait of Clayton Weatherston is one of 93 works competing in the Adam Portraiture Award, opening in Wellington tomorrow.

Stretching 2.5 metres high, Liam Gerrard's charcoal and acrylic work captures a man who dominated the national news last year, as Weatherston stood trial for the 2008 murder of his former girlfriend, Sophie Elliott, 22, whom he stabbed 216 times.

Miss Elliott's father, Gil, said he had not known the portrait was being painted and suggested the title "The Epitome of Evil" might be a suitable one. "It would have been better to have done a nice one of Sophie."

More than 300 portrait artists entered a new work in the competition. Judge Andrew Sayers, director of the Australian National Portrait Gallery, chose the 93 competitors based on photos of the images. He was not told the names of the artists and subjects so the selection was on artistic merit alone.

Gerrard, 25, whose first solo exhibition late last year included a portrait of David Bain, who was acquitted on charges of murdering his family, said he chose Weatherston because "I was interested in doing a villain".

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"The guidelines for the award were just to do an actual New Zealander. I just thought I'd try a bad guy. I went for the most hated man in the country, or he was at that time."

Gerrard said he did not expect anyone to buy the work. "As far as anyone having it on their wall, I highly doubt it. Except maybe a collector."

National Portrait Gallery director Avenal McKinnon said the portrait was probably the most contentious subject to appear in the biennial competition.

"You could, in some countries, say artists are not allowed to paint bad people or murderers. But in New Zealand we have this wonderful freedom, it's what democracy is all about.

"As a portrait gallery, we feel we have to encourage it. What does evil look like? It's the face of evil and it's horrifying that it is so ordinary."

The competition was judged yesterday afternoon. The winner will be announced this evening.

The Dominion Post