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'The Pioneers'

A finals triptych



Oppositional blues, reds. Green as the intermediary hue. Most eyes are drawn bottom-right to Acres curling fists at the Sydney cheer squad after receiving from Jack Martin, scoring in the goal square, hammering what was prematurely judged a match-winner. His mouth’s ajar. He must’ve yelped and had 80,000 roaring back – like a mouse towards a lion. Although Martin’s handball isn’t included, one of his later saving marks is. His arms are steady overhead, the artist managing to capture his tension for contact that never arrived. Faces are rendered carefully, too. There’s Hayden Maclean’s muted reaction to a goal, near the end, that left the Swans only 6 points down. His pursed expression somehow shows desperation and false modesty. The spectators wrapped against the field are mostly dots and whirs, but there are dozens of representative Carlton profiles whose pain in the last half-minute might be enjoyed by viewers of rival persuasions. The beleaguered fans are painted with fingers in mouths, jutting noses, postures slumped by the weight of too much club apparel on a frigid night. And yet the lateral progression of these supporters has temporal significance, as well, for as we get closer to the right-hand frame there’s the seated celebrating, the spitty exhalations that are meant to coincide with Nic Newman’s cradling mark (not shown), and then the wild, drought-breaking dances that were initiated come the final siren. In this painting, the furthest sheets of light-up fencing devote their jagged pixels to the words of the club song – although probably only Japanese exchange students really needed them. Closer to the centre of the panel are earlier scenes from the match. As is often the case with historical representations – ancient all-ins and the like – the characters are cast at improbable angles, pressed like flounders against the grass so that more can be accommodated. There’s veiny Patrick Cripps tilting back after a third-quarter steadier, made thick-toothed by his mouthguard. Somehow, by capturing the crucial pinch of the white guard and bottom lip, the artist suggests in just a frozen image Cripps’ cry was, “Lesch futhing go!” Near Cripps is the stricken figure of Harry McKay, mirroring the pose of Nick ‘The Lizard’ Blakey elsewhere in the panel. The artwork doesn’t inform that, as a lizard, Blakey’s powers of recovery were greater and he was the one to make it back afield, although the high whack he’d received blunted what otherwise might’ve been his terrible influence. Bottom left you’ll find, as well, acknowledging representations of Logan McDonald (snapping a goal) and Errol Gulden (mid a scything pass). Gulden’s game was truly significant, although McDonald is perhaps chiefly for balancing the colour scheme. Many appreciate the detail of coach Michael Voss beaming and head-patting Matthew Owies after the latter’s near-critical mistake – evidence of a notorious ‘hard man’ embracing new-age leadership. With both figures sporting relatively square heads, this part of the scene has been likened to a Baroque interpretation of ‘The Prodigal Son’. Of course, in the upper half of the panel there’s also a popular recreation of inflamed Matt Cottrell (blue, but a red menace) overestimating his size, extending an arm like a bigger man, and seeing off a would-be tackler with confidence alone. Cottrell’s ballooning left foot shot, a mere second later, is reserved for the imagination. And finally in the top-left, at the narrative arc’s beginning, there’s the Swans’ ruined pre-match banner – whatever crepe paper rhyme it had hoped to convey crumpled by a vicious tear, a lack of sticky tape. The baffled craftspeople stand alongside. It’s a little sadistic that the artist chose to memorialise this incident, however ignoring the easy symbolism would’ve been a waste of its own.





As is appropriate for a triptych, the central panel is the largest and most significant. Whilst it again has an eye-catching Blake Acres as a grounded figure crowing at an opposition cheer squad, he’s in an unfortunate white clash jumper and he looms much bigger than before. His celebration doesn’t admit he nearly missed, although the artist makes an effort to show how the ball skewed towards the goal-post. Looping away from Acres, smaller in stature, are characters from the excise of play he’d concluded. There’s Docherty in the moment of his perfect lob, Ollie Hollands chest-marking, Weitering’s central pivot, Viney’s hurried turnover. Although Acres’ flirt with the padding is laid bare, by looking close you may also notice the distant right goal-post at the city end of the ground has been painted unrealistically wide, in testament to pivotal Melbourne behinds. From the immediate aftermath, there’s Charlie Curnow hoisting Brodie Kemp, and the Demons’ captain collapsed on the ground like a kid at the beach. To convey the sound of the finish, there are thick ridges in the paint that course from the stands and twist cyclonically. The noise (described by some commentators, with possible recency bias, as the ‘loudest on record’ within the nation’s biggest gathering place) wavers in front of its source and makes 96,000 seem like a mirage. As a modern flourish, the artist shows air bubble frenzies of text messages rising from the bays post-game – both victors and vanquished favouring expletives. Many Blues wish to communicate something along the lines of, <That was the best thing that’s ever happened to me>. Apart from Acres, the two dominant on-field figures, occurring higher in the panel, are Steven May and Sam Walsh. May marks sternly ahead of C. Curnow while a nebulous Melbourne sidekick takes care of enough of the Coleman medallist’s limbs – the painting won’t disclose this happened at least five times. Walsh is captured in the top-left quadrant, an index finger aloft to celebrate an early check-side goal. Showing his skill as a miniaturist, the artist has included enough of a salivary sheen on Walsh’s fingertip to imply the young star’s just licked it, is testing the wind. There’s roving Kysaiah Pickett, seeming to split a stationary pack with enough kineticism he’s barely contained inside this canvas and its storyline, could well have ripped both apart. There’s Tom De Koning’s floating second-quarter pack mark. One of the panel’s central attractions, the blonde ruckman’s flight sticks in the memory, as it did in real life for an overseas pop star who’d taken too many uppers to fall asleep in his hotel room. And then the sad detail of this central artwork that no viewer would discern unless the creator had in several cases laboriously explained it: within the Shane Warne Stand, which folds against the left wing of the playing field, there’s a vacated second level bar and dining room. In the surrounding seats, the spectators don’t match others for investment. It's a miniaturist’s work, again, but with a magnifying glass you can see the Carlton supporters here aren’t so jubilant, and any Demons aren’t properly devastated. Altogether, their reactions are quite bridled, and they’re far from producing the rivulets of noise found elsewhere. It’s because most in this area had attended a dinner package where, during the early courses, a woman little more than a half-century old had died, had choked on her food and gone into cardiac arrest. It’s an appalling enough event, of course, that its imprint can hardly be displaced by the epic semi-final. The thought of somebody entering the ticket gates of this venue and dying looks especially unfair because it’s a place that purports to be about sport and escapism. In the painting, there aren’t explicit signs of the emergency response – just an empty dining room and a flock of conflicted faces – yet certain critics argue an incident of this kind shouldn’t even be referenced in a triptych that chiefly wants to reflect on a mere finals campaign, seeing as the shock and grief surrounding a proper tragedy are remote to the juvenile reactions of football. Many have rejoindered, however, that those clues of tragedy are permissible, given it was something that really happened, given life is fickle and absurd, given meaning’s invented, given all who’d been in the stadium won’t shake dying at some stage. And no doubt thousands will in time look back on this match where they’d wildly hugged loved ones in the wake of Acres’ goal as <one of the nights of my life> – a mediocre description or a profundity, depending on how literally you take it.  





There’s sunshine in the top left quadrant alone. People peer over the Gabba’s rippled roof from neighbouring apartment buildings. On the boundary line, the man in feathers and ochre who’d called a resounding ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ as a Welcome to Country is included. The playing field bunches at a central hill (like a community oval), and for spectators near the fence there’s a sense of watching from a basement. The match is therefore painted with fans above and below, the sky darkening as the canvas tracks rightwards. Cottrell, the menace, runs into an open goal and aggressively thanks Blues supporters who’d made the trip. Walsh, again, is prominently featured. Harry McKay snaps astutely – and it would take deft powers of observation to know it’s because, four rows from the front, there’s a guy with a McKay badge clipped into his baseball cap that everyone’s rubbing for luck. Patrick Cripps woozily approaches for a shot after a high free-kick, but the oil-sky overhead, by this time, has turned purple. Brisbane have wrested back control at this stage in the frame. Connor McKenna, the Irish Setter half-back, is captured slapping a ball to himself before scoring. Rayner tackles maliciously. With all of the action sandwiched in the central third of the panel, the match is cluttered and appears to be high-pressure. Any blank space is seemingly occupied by copies of Keidean Coleman. Painted Michael Voss means to inspire by fixing himself near the interchange gates (as though, near-fifties, he could yet be decisive), and the Lions coach is ever-surly (even when his side comfortably leads) watching behind glass upstairs. Beneath the contest it’s all Blues fans, and above (on what’s intended as the other side of the ground) it’s solely maroon, as if organisers had feared soccer-esque violence and felt segregation was prudent. Blinkered to their own allocation of the stadium, Carlton fans may have initially deluded themselves into thinking they’d performed a Gabba takeover. Certainly, within the span of the sunlit first quarter, it looks as if their wild barracking gave their team much of its fuel. However the painting can’t quite find a way to communicate that what reversed the game’s trajectory was as much Brisbane’s post-goal stadium media (tepid pop songs and horrific videos of twerking players) as their lift in tackling pressure. Genius, really, how these kinds of tasteless intrusions are employed to break the concentration of a visiting team and re-establish momentum. Sitting beside one another on the Gabba’s rippled roof, looking down cordially, legs dangling, are Ron Barassi (the recently deceased champion whose memory must have been evoked in the Blues’ pre-match rev-up, thus inspiring the fast start) and John Denver (the victim of a light plane crash whose weary Platinum yodel helped reclaim the match for the Lions). In the end, the Blues’ relationship to the ’23 cup matches the advice museum guards hiss at those who sidle up to proper masterpieces: they were afforded a close look, but couldn’t touch. The last Carlton moment in the triptych timeline is Cripps leading his pioneering team off the ground unfulfilled, clapping the fans, fans clapping back. Amongst supporters turning to leave, you can spot a mega-celebrity Blues pilgrim belting a song into a mate’s phone – not the Brisbane anthem, just ‘Sweet Caroline’. Perhaps such free-spiritedness is healthy detachment. In lieu of a signature, the artist has included himself as one of the fans four rows from the boundary, a backwards cap within the Carlton mob. His face isn’t visible, but in the telecast he’d been a nervous minion behind Charlie Curnow as the forward padded towards a sprayed shot. The artist claims he’d used the proximity to advise an inexperienced Blues defender to go for goal from long range in the third quarter. Jordan Boyd listened, but scooped the kick. Subsequently, the artist wished he’d had the presence of mind, the lack of the shame, the sense of occasion to have also reminded Boyd to kick through it – like this would at all have made a difference. He tells a story, as well, of walking across Story Bridge (visible past Barassi and Denver, a steel cage against the horizonal CBD) to a club in Fortitude Valley later on the same night, where a friend of his partner’s with a Jesus fish tattooed on her wrist had taken a look at him, an interstate traveller wearing a Blues windcheater, two Blues scarves with badges of underrated players, a baseball cap, and said, “I can tell you’re very religious.” This phrasing had never occurred to him before, but he knew she was right. He might’ve set to work on the triptych as an act of devotion. Turns out it’s no more secular than one you’d find in a chapel.

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