‘Unfinished Business: The art of Gordon Bennett’ at QAGOMA

By Miriam Cosic

The artist’s explosive visual language is on show in an engrossing retrospective

Gordon Bennett, Possession Island 1991. Oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Two parts: 162 x 260cm (overall). © The Estate of Gordon Bennett

The artist Gordon Bennett led a reclusive life. That’s probably why he is hardly a household name, despite the cognoscenti referring to him as a powerfully influential figure in contemporary art. He refused to get out there and explain, let alone publicise, his practice.

Bennett’s art is the output of ceaseless intellectual ferment, questing and creative, engaging with art history, postcolonial critique and a fractured sense of identity. He didn’t realise he had Aboriginal heritage on his mother’s side (his father was Anglo-Celtic) until he was in his teens, and he spent his adult life trying to come to terms with that fact. He refused to be pigeonholed as an Indigenous artist, which makes sense since he was as much a white artist, even though his work was fixated on the terrible injustices of Australia’s colonial history.

Despite his desire for privacy, Bennett earned accolades in the art world. In 1991 he won the Moët & Chandon Australian Art Fellowship to France, spending the time at a useful remove from the Australian political culture he was deconstructing, and within handy visiting distance of museums where he soaked up the aesthetic as well as the politics of European modernism and postmodernism. He also held residencies in Australia, and he was invited to Documenta in Kassel in 2012 and to the Berlin Biennale in 2014. He died far too young, at the age of 58, just a week after Berlin opened, having had only 28 artistically productive years.

Unfinished Business: The art of Gordon Bennett is a major retrospective of the artist’s work now showing at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA). Visiting it is an engrossing and time-consuming experience. The detail in his large-scale history paintings, the use of idiosyncratic motifs, the appropriation and manipulation of the styles of key figures in Western modernism and 20th-century Aboriginal art (as wide-ranging as Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Margaret Preston, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and the dot painters of the Papunya Tula movement) make for an explosive and complex visual language. I found myself constantly retracing my steps around the show to contrast and compare the works.

Those appropriations come together less as “influence” or as any kind of hero-worship. Rather, they form a conceptual search for some way to demonstrate the postcolonial cultural mash-up that exists semi-hidden from white eyes (that won’t look). Even in his powerful use of Pollock’s drip technique, he was aware of the American painter’s interest in the sand painting of the Navajo. And in using Preston’s imagery he is critical of her highly successful but unacknowledged use of Aboriginal motifs.

Bennett’s body of work is linked by visual motifs, appearing both within and across different series of works. Captain Cook reappears. So do Basquiat-style cartoon faces with large teeth displayed inside drawn-back lips: do they portray anger or suffering? And so, too, does Afrofuturism’s “black angel of history”, an ominous play on both Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) and the powerful critique of history (the histories written by the victors) by German philosopher Walter Benjamin, the first owner of Klee’s work. You see how the mind cannot stop when confronted by Bennett’s work.

His history paintings, suffused with irony, intensify the Indigenous experience of colonisation with their collages of realist European art styles. Possession Island (1991), for example, presents shadowy renditions of Captain Cook and his party against a watery blue ground, overlayed with Pollock-style drips in black, yellow and red – the colours of the Aboriginal flag that are also suggestive of blood. The only figure fully painted in is an Aboriginal man in European dress – black skin, yellow breeches, red jacket – carrying a drinks tray for the arrivals, a servant already.

Another series, titled Home décor, overlays those unacknowledged white appropriations of Australiana with De Stijl geometry. In Home décor (Preston + De stijl = Citizen) Men with weapons (1997), for example, Bennett compartmentalises several rectangular sections within multiple coloured lines reminiscent of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. In a central section are two European bush types with hats and guns looking across a wide, black divide at three Aboriginal men. The black divide is segmented with light geometric white lines supporting the word “mirror” in small letters; the men on both sides are backgrounded by Pollock-style drips layered over Papunya-style dots. Or are they the Ben-Day dots of American pop art? Bennett’s works allow no passive intake by viewers; he demands that they work too.

Other works are less scholarly. Another motif is rows of white heads, juxtaposed with “A, B, C, D”, not just denoting the first letters of the alphabet but also the initials of abusive words in Australia’s racist repertoire (“abo”, “boong”, “coon”, “darkie”), and with a black head undergoing an act of violence. In The Coming of the Light (1987), for example, those white heads are laid out against stylised high-rise buildings. A black head tops a jack-in-the-box in front of them, with one white hand holding a belt as a noose around his neck, the other hand holding a torch of enlightenment.

Even more visceral is the triptych Bloodlines (1993), from his “welt” series of paintings. In an essay called “Skin Deep”, about Bennett’s use of imagery, critic Helen Hughes describes his development of “a more explicit equivalence between the site of the canvas and that of the abused exploited black body”. On the outer wings of Bloodlines, he covered red paint with black, scraping back the black in lines the shape of palm prints to leave an impression of bloody welts, the kind you might see on the back of a whipped slave. In the central panel hang a tangle of nooses dipped in red oxide, a grim reference to the ongoing horror of Aboriginal deaths in custody.

In a room of its own is one of Bennett’s more clearly autobiographical works, an installation called Psycho(d)rama (1990). It too raises more questions than it answers. Blown-up black-and-white photographs of his mother and his father, idealised against bucolic backgrounds, face each other on opposite walls over a black-and-white chessboard floor. At his mother’s end stand two chess pieces: an Aboriginal man and woman in traditional dress. In front of his father’s picture, on a plinth, is the white bust of a European woman. Critic Ian McLean, an expert on Bennett’s work, wrote of it: “Instead of picturing art as mirrors of the viewer’s own emotions and self, the installation deployed the theatrical tactics of Brechtian alienation, which refuses the spectator a private space and thus a central subject position.”

I found myself shuffling round and round the installation, trying to get a firmer grip on it – photographs certainly do it no justice. At a less elevated level, it made me remember how surprised I was when I first realised that Bennett’s mother could hide the fact that she was mixed race. But, given the depth of racism at the time and the lengths people went to in order to assimilate, she, like many others, probably passed as Italian or someone of another dark-skinned Mediterranean heritage. Which is ironic, given that a whole other repertoire of ethnocentric words of abuse were used at the time for postwar European immigrants.

Bennett came to art late, though he had excelled at art and social studies in school. He was a fitter and turner as well as a telecom linesman before enrolling at the Queensland College of Art when he was 30, emerging with a BA in fine arts three years later. His painting has the rigour of professional training, but he moved with the times. In the exhibition catalogue, a photo of his studio shows a bank of computers and digital paraphernalia against a wall of books. The digital world was where he thought and experimented, usually with a backdrop of hip hop or rap music playing, before returning to the canvas. Photoshop, for example, was a useful tool.

In an elegant opening essay for the Unfinished Business catalogue, exhibition curator Zara Stanhope finishes with a meditation on Bennett’s place in his times. “Transformations have occurred as a result of Bennett’s work,” she writes, “and many artists have been inspired to take up their profession through his example of a rigorous, conceptual practice.”

But on the question of the reality that triggered his work, she writes: “His late works speak to the question of what citizenship should look like, shining a light on political apathy by visualising the coexistence and complexity of multiple voices. Bennett’s work suggests there are divides that require us being attentive to what we don’t know, as much as to what we do, and that this is our unfinished business to attend to.”


Miriam Cosic travelled to Brisbane as a guest of QAGOMA

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Gordon Bennett, Possession Island 1991. Oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Two parts: 162 x 260cm (overall). © The Estate of Gordon Bennett

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