Culture

Art

Ben Quilty: the art of unease

By Steve Dow
Ahead of a major survey at the Art Gallery of SA, the artist talks about the anxiety that informs his work

Ben Quilty. Photograph by Daniel Boud

If ever there was a transformative moment in the career of Ben Quilty, who made his name with art about young male risk-taking – getting into fights and drinking, taking drugs and speeding in cars – it happened after a trip to Afghanistan, in 2011, where he was an official Australian war artist. Not when Quilty, who had grown up in a north-west Sydney suburb, was exploring the rugged terrain in Tarin Kowt and Kabul by Chinook and on foot, but in the anxious aftermath.

He invited some of the servicemen and women he had met in Afghanistan to sit for him in his studio at Robertson in the NSW Southern Highlands, and they assumed poses of their own choosing. Some of these returned personnel revealed to Quilty that they had post-traumatic stress, and, following those sittings, he immersed himself in their cause. This experience triggered a hunger for the causes of others: convicted Australian drug smuggler Myuran Sukumaran, facing the death penalty in Indonesia, whom he mentored as a painter; and Heba, a six-year-old Syrian refugee he met at a transit station in Serbia, with whom he sat down and drew pictures.

Lisa Slade, the curator of a survey simply called Quilty (opening at the Art Gallery of South Australia on March 2 during the Adelaide Festival, before moving to GOMA in Brisbane in June and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in November), says that in his work with the soldiers, Quilty was “excavating the psychological territory of the interior landscape”. In an essay for the exhibition’s catalogue, Slade writes about his painting of Captain Kate Porter, who sits upright, one arm draped across her bare torso: “While her fragility is laid bare, it is Quilty’s anxiety that is the painting’s true subject.”

Quilty, turning 46 this year, texted Slade after reading her essay, and said her analysis of his work was correct; he just hadn’t realised until now that his nervousness had shown through his thickly textured signature style. In fact, all three essay writers contributing to the catalogue alighted on variations of this truth about Quilty the artist and the man.

“Anxiety is an issue in the broader community,” Quilty tells me from Mittagong, where he has moved his studio in order to be closer to the school attended by the eldest of his two children, son Joe, 12, whom he once depicted as a hamburger. “People look for clinical reasons for that anxiety, and some people do have genuine health issues that include anxiety. I do feel an anxiety about the world and how things are going.

“My dad taught me as a kid – he had three sons who have all become proactive social/health/science commentators – and he homeschooled us and took us camping. With Mum and Dad we’d be out in the bush for a long, long time, away from humanity. Dad taught us about the endlessness of the universe to temper that anxiety about the human condition, and how we are destroying our own planet.

“I didn’t realise my anxiety was obvious to other people. Lisa’s job is to read into the layer of paintings, and she nailed it with that comment. I do feel increasingly anxious about the planet and our role on the planet.”

So he’s never not painting himself when painting others? “Yeah, that’s right, and I guess if you paint yourself, I’m the litmus test for how the world’s going. All of us are. Anxiety is the thing she’s picked up on: my anxiety about climate change and the way humans treat each other. Look, I’m very lucky to be able to use my art to talk about these issues.”

The newest work in the Quilty survey is a giant 12-panel painting, Irin Irinji (2018), which depicts the site of an Indigenous massacre in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunyjatjara (APY) Lands in north-western South Australia. Of this work, Slade writes: “Mauve, violet, lilac, lavender and purple hues dominate the palette. Where paint is absent, ghost gums appear, haunting the landscape and remaking themselves as human bodies – upturned pallid limbs reaching skywards.”

The artwork continues Quilty’s mesmerising Rorschach series. Borrowing from the psychological ink blot tests that are used to understand a subject’s perception, his paint is symmetrically mirrored on the left and right sides of the canvas, which can only hint at a site of historical trauma on the Australian landscape, invisible to most eyes. How did Quilty find this site, I ask, because when I search for Irin Irinji on the internet, nothing comes up. “I asked friends that I have there – [artist] Frank Young, [APY Lands executive board deputy chair] Sally Scales and [artist] Vincent Namatjira – if they would let me make a work in response to a site of frontier violence, and they took me to this little place. No, it’s not on the map.

“They took me there and they let me walk all over it, photograph it and get a sense of the place. That was the response I made.

“When I was at Sydney College of the Arts, which was at the end of the postmodernist movement – which I was intrigued and inspired by but didn’t necessarily fit into – I was actually making landscape paintings of the bush behind my parents’ house in Kenthurst.

“At the same time I studied Aboriginal culture and history, and I was just struck, as a 19-year-old who hadn’t been taught anything about Indigenous history at school, by how profoundly complex the community of people were who had the land before we’d taken it from them.

“It was around then that I stopped making landscape paintings. I made some urban landscapes of the centre of Melbourne when I lived down there in the late ’90s, but I felt, and more and more feel, that I tell my own stories, and I can’t tell stories about the landscape of this country because there are people who know it so much more profoundly than I ever will. Until their voices are heard properly, it’s not my right.”

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.

@dowsteve

Ben Quilty. Photograph by Daniel Boud

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