Mitch Cairns (b. 1984, lives Sydney) is a maker of pictures. His figurative paintings speak a vernacular of agile invention, image-ideas quickly observed from life. Human figures rarely shown in full and other objects inhabit shorthand delineations of architectural spaces. Surfaces within pictorial spaces are opportunities for exercises in abstraction where form is sculpted tonally and rhythmically. Areas of shifting patterning crafted from thin veils of oil paint sit adjacent to flat expanses of pure colour.

Text and language are equal material for Cairns’ excursions in picture-making and extend to his print making and collage practice. Illegible anagrams, concrete poetry rendered in Letraset, screen-printed short stories and titles for paintings are forms with which to play, forays for further idiomatic and exclamatory expression.

Cairns was awarded the 2017 Archibald Prize for his portrait of fellow artist and partner, Agatha Gothe-Snape. 2017 was the fourth time that he has been a finalist in the high-profile prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The winning 2017 portrait was acquired by Monash Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, while the runner-up portraits of Reg Richardson (2014) and Peter Powditch (2015) were acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, and the Art Gallery of NSW, respectively.

Cairns was one of fourteen focus artists whose work was given an in-depth solo presentation in the 2016 exhibition Painting. More Painting at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, curated by Max Delany, Annika Kristensen and Hannah Matthews. Painting. More Painting was the first major institutional survey of contemporary Australian painting to be staged in over a decade.

In 2015, Cairns presented The Reader’s Voice, a solo project exhibition at Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, curated by Linda Michael. The Reader’s Voice was Cairns' first solo exhibition in a public institution. The exhibition comprised a large group of A4 Letraset, Zazzle sticker and Dulux colour sample collages, a unique bronze and an artist book that documented a larger group of one hundred collages.

Cairns was invited to curate the 2019 Primavera: Young Australian Artist exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Primavera is the MCA’s annual exhibition of young Australian artists aged 35 and under. Since 1992, the Primavera series has showcased the works of artists in the early stages of their career.

Cairns has had four solo exhibitions at The Commercial: his first exhibition of cartoons to accompany the launch of his book, Dip or Skinny Dip (2014), and three exhibitions featuring major new series of paintings, Soliloquy Workshop (2018), Stray Geranium (2016) and FINCHES (2015). In 2014, he produced a Drawing Wall commission, Studio Leak, for Shepparton Art Museum (curated by Elise Routledge). He presented three solo exhibitions at BREENSPACE, Sydney, before its closure in 2013 (2012, 2010, 2008). He has held solo exhibitions with TCB inc., Melbourne (2014), KALIMANRAWLINS, Melbourne (2013).

Selected group exhibitions include The National: New Australian Art, Carriageworks, Sydney (2021); This is a Poem, Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne (2021); Grounded: Contemporary Australian Art, NAS Gallery, Sydney (2017); Game, Bowerbank Ninow, Auckland (2017); Painting. More Painting, at the ACCA, Melbourne (2016); Outside Thoughts, curated by Wes Hill, at Contemporary Art Tasmania (2015), RELATIONSHIPPAL with Tim Silver and Susan Jacobs at BREENSPACE, Sydney (2013), They call them Pirates out here, curated by David Elliot, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (2010); What I think of when I think about dancing, curated by Lisa Havilah and Susan Gibb, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney (2009); Reality Check, curated by Daniel Mudie Cunningham, Hazelhurst Regional Art Gallery, Sydney (2009) and The Shilo Project, curated by Chris McAuliffe, Ian Potter Museum, Melbourne (2009).

He has been awarded a number of prizes and residencies as well as being a finalist in several prize exhibitions including, The Archibald Prize (2017, 2015, 2014, 2013), The Brett Whiteley Traveling Art Scholarship (2012) which included a residency at the Cité internationale des arts, Paris (2013) and the Linden Art Prize (winner postcard prize), Linden Contemporary, Melbourne (2012). He has been a finalist in the Arthur Guy Memorial Prize (2017); Geelong Contemporary Art Prize (2017, 2014), the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize (2013, 2010), the Fishers Ghost Art Prize, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney (2011), the Helen Lampriere Traveling Scholarship, Artspace, Sydney (2009, 2007, 2006), the John Olsen Drawing Prize (2005), the Gruner Landscape Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (2004, 2003).

His work is held in the collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Artbank, Deloitte, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney (donation from Ergas Collection), the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, and Wollongong University Art Collection.

Mitch Cairns is alumnus of the National Art School, Sydney, where he currently sits on the Academic Board.


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