March 2019

The Nation Reviewed

Ben Quilty in bleeding colour

By Bri Lee
The Australian artist opens up on the eve of a retrospective exhibition

Now may be a good time for artists and art institutions to be asking questions about masculinity and mortality, but a better time might have been 20 years ago, when Ben Quilty started painting a series of Holden Toranas. The 46-year-old’s ways with colour and grand scale – elements that have remained consistent through distinct periods of moral inquisition and advocacy – have fortified his position as one of the most acclaimed and popular contemporary Australian artists. Now he readies himself for the first major survey exhibition of his art, titled simply, Quilty.

Featuring around 70 works, the show will begin at the Art Gallery of South Australia (March 2 – June 2) before touring to the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA; June 29 – October 13) and finishing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (November 9 – February 2, 2020). “It’s a little daunting, but it’s a privilege,” Quilty says in anticipation. “It’s what we all want as artists, you know. It means you actually feel like you’ve made something.”

The conversation about a major retrospective started in 2015 with the then director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Nick Mitzevich (now director of the National Gallery of Australia), and assistant director Lisa Slade. “Back then it was exciting to hear, but it’s taken three or four years for the show to be realised and you kind of forget about it a bit,” Quilty says with a laugh. “So it’s only in the last few months I’ve thought, Oh wow, I’d better sit down and get my head around how this all works.”

Quilty sent Slade (the curator of the show and a long-time friend) a disc loaded with some 600 images, pointing out his favourites from the mass. “Then Lisa came back to me and suggested other works that I hadn’t even put on that disc.” From there followed deep conversation at Quilty’s studio, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. As they whittled the list down to around 100 pieces, the shaping began. “I find it hard to see any thread from yesterday to today, to be honest with you. But Lisa finds threads in my work.” Quilty described feeling naive about his own art when Slade would point out imagery “so obviously following a trajectory … even from way back to high school”.

One such thread led from a drawing Quilty made circa 2004, when he was confronted by footage of a group of Olympic athletes behaving poorly. The drawing depicted an award made of “a pile of skulls and snakes”. Around six years later, he created The Encouragement Award, a bronze sculpture that weighed more than 30 kilograms, making it almost impossible to lift (“which is kind of the point”), and was black with skulls and snakes. “I don’t even remember looking at the drawing to make that sculpture,” Quilty exclaims, “but it was buried deep in the back of my brain somewhere.” When he saw Slade bring the two artworks together he got goosebumps. “I couldn’t believe it.”

There are other works in the exhibition he almost argued against, thinking they may not be strong enough, but his faith in Slade won out. “Good curators know.”

Quilty’s excitement peaks with a discussion of the exhibition’s youth program. “That’s my favourite part: dreaming up these wild ideas for how to engage children.” He says that QAGOMA in particular has a “world-standard” reputation for youth programming, and he involved his own children, 13-year-old Joe and 10-year-old Olivia, in the ideas process. “At first [it was] very challenging, and then I just went into my babies’ bedrooms and asked them, and then I found it exhilarating.” Young visitors will have multimedia art tools and 3D replicas to interact with, and Joe features in a video tutorial that lets kids make their own portraits. Quilty says he doesn’t want children to “shy away from thought-provoking or taboo subjects”, but rather to “take the world on”.

It is something of a theme for him recently: in the introduction to Home (2018), a book of drawings by Syrian refugee children, he describes one particular girl’s contribution as the “truest international language … a language that we big people need to listen to closely and seriously”.

Back in 2002, Quilty won the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship and shortly after made a fast and firm impression on the art world with his collection of Torana paintings. Slade once described the popped hood in one of them as suggestive of “an avian mating display”, and his bold brushstrokes of incredible colour have remained steady throughout the periods that followed, as have those recurring themes of masculinity and mortality. He moved from art-famous to public-famous with a Doug Moran National Portrait Prize win for his painting of Jimmy Barnes in 2009, and an Archibald Prize win for a portrait of Margaret Olley in 2011.

Also in 2011, the Australian War Memorial commissioned Quilty as an official war artist in Afghanistan, where he worked with personnel involved in Operation Slipper. It is telling that the major body of work resulting from that role depicts the soldiers nude, stripped of their uniforms, and choosing their own poses after deep conversation with Quilty back in his Australian studio, away from the violence. Also resulting from his time in Afghanistan was the painting Bushmaster (2012), which depicts an armoured vehicle designed for safe passenger transport, destroyed. Considered simultaneously, the Toranas almost sparkle in cerulean and titanium white compared to the Bushmaster wailing in rust, charcoal, and dried-blood red. The threads illuminate.

Then in 2012 came trips between Indonesia and Australia, and a public campaign against the death penalty for Bali Nine pair Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. In Self Portrait, The Executioner, painted the day after the executions went ahead in 2015, the pain emanates. With the title Quilty accuses himself, but through his direct stare the viewer is implicated too. “A lot of my work was driven by my own anxiety,” he says. It is almost too uncomfortable to make eye contact with the face in that image.

Rather than the artworks themselves depicting compassion, Quilty describes them as allowing him to “start conversations about the need for compassion”. It’s a striking contrast: his portraits in particular can be deliberately grotesque – pained and agitated on the canvas – and yet the feelings and conversations they evoke prompt gentleness in us. Just don’t put labels on his compassion. Being called a “bleeding heart” for what he described simply as “standing up for a mate” (Sukumaran) made him exasperated. Likewise, Quilty was incensed when someone labelled him as just being a political “leftie”, saying such pigeonholing is “deeply offensive”. “To suggest that I’m somehow aligned with some political party? It’s just ugly. It’s revolting, and base, and totally simplistic.” He says good luck to anyone who tries to polarise artists like that.

To coincide with the exhibition, Penguin Random House has published Ben Quilty, a book featuring around 300 works. In an introductory essay, long-time friend Richard Flanagan describes the artist as “a gentle man inclined to folly and passion, not infrequently at the same time”. He also notes that “I don’t always recognise the man in the artwork I see.” (The two travelled to Europe and the Middle East together to witness the refugee crisis.)

Flanagan also writes that Quilty’s Torana-driven arrival in the art scene presented “an indigestible contradiction for an Australian art elite that liked its artists arty”. For another artist the embrace of three major institutions might suggest a change or a gradually developed digestibility, but there is a firmness to Quilty’s trajectory that affirms his integrity. He may not see the threads, but they appear in bold colours.

Bri Lee

Bri Lee is an award-winning author, freelance writer and legal academic. Her books are Eggshell SkullBeauty and Who Gets to be Smart.

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