B.S.Johnson, a sadly neglected British novelist, has a short story collection entitled: Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing your Memoirs? This would have been an appropriate title for the exhibition that goes under the much groovier label: Ben Quilty Live! With an exhibiting career of only seven or eight years it is extraordinary that this youthful Sydney artist is already being given a survey at a public gallery.
If he were the bitter-and-twisted type, this might be the opinion of Idris Murphy, whose own survey show, I and Thou, finishes at the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery this weekend. At the age of sixty this is the first time Murphy has had the pleasure of seeing an overview of his life’s work in a public space. The precocious Quilty has reached the same stage while still in his mid-thirties. Does this argue superior talent, or superior luck? Neither, I suspect. Aside from the perennial glamour of youth, Quilty’s main advantage in this ‘hare and tortoise’ comparison is a more obvious connection with the spirit of the age.
From the moment he exhibited his paintings of old Toranas in 2002, Quilty has been earmarked as an artist of exceptional promise. His progress since then has been meteoric, with awards, residencies and accolades piling up at his feet. This year he won the $100,000 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize for a double likeness of Botany resident, Jimmy Barnes, and must have come horribly close (again) to picking up the Archibald.
This survey was initiated by the University of Queensland Art Museum, and has now travelled to the TarraWarra Museum of Art at Healesville in the Yarra Valley. As yet there are no plans to bring it to Sydney, which is a shame and a puzzle. For while it is unusual to be turning the spotlight on such a brief career, it must be said that Quilty’s work holds up well to scrutiny. Instead of simply focusing on his heavy application of paint and rapidity of execution, one becomes conscious of the intelligence that underpins the action.
Quilty may slap on paint like a berserk warrior, but he plans his themes and motifs in the manner of a general mapping out a campaign. Essays in the catalogue continually remind us that his abiding theme is male youth culture – drink, drugs and fast cars – but handled in a manner that exposes the brazen self-destructiveness of these everyday lifestyle choices. Curator, Lisa Slade, even suggests that Quilty’s Toranas “articulated a crisis in masculinity” – which must have been startling news to General Motors Holden. Another of his achievements, according to Rex Butler, is that Quilty has painted an “absolutely post-historical work that is also strangely pre-historical.” Strange indeed.
More prosaically, what one sees in these works is a getting of wisdom, as Quilty bids farewell to the macho culture of his youth and joins the respectable middle classes. He may have mixed with hoons and rev-heads, but now he is husband, father, and a highly fashionable artist. Yet he is not so detached from his past that he can’t appreciate the tragic potential of it all. The portrait of his tattooed mate, Whytie, or the double portrait of fellow painter, Adam Cullen, are masterful studies of male bravura. Quilty doesn’t editorialise, he simply presents Exhibits A and B, and lets us draw our own conclusions
His mock-heroic portraits of budgerigars are also intended as a meditation on Australianness. These little birds are Australian natives that have been so altered by selective breeding that their original identities have been virtually erased. The fact that these pictures have titles such as Ossie or Baz, or even Self-portrait as Budgie, suggests that he is using the birds as metaphors for our own social identities, concocted from an indigestible blend of cultural influences.
In other works, such as Golden soil, wealth for toil (2004), Quilty reworks Tom Roberts’s iconic bushranger picture, Bailed Up (1895/1927), in great slabs of hastily applied pigment. The title, however, suggests that robbery is the true toil to which those lines in the national anthem refer. It is one of many works in which Quilty expresses a sympathy with indigenous Australians. His interest was serious enough to prompt him to study for a certificate in Aboriginal culture and History from Monash University.
The further one goes in this show the more one notices the pattern of ideas upon which these apparently spontaneous paintings are built. Even the bizarre image of the artist’s son, Joe, turning into a hamburger, evokes the fierce hunger that makes babies cry and rage. It is the kind of hunger better represented by a hamburger-with- the-lot than say, a plate of sushi. The Rorschach-style portraits of Jimmy Barnes, showing the singer’s disembodied head floating on the canvas, are reminiscent of John the Baptist’s head on the silver platter – a comment on the potentially lethal nature of celebrity.
As with other practitioners of the ‘thick paint’ method such as Nicholas Harding and Jun Chen, Quilty’s style has the peculiarity of almost obliterating the subject at close range. It is only when we step back that the image comes into focus, emerging from a rippling, volcanic mass of oil. Yet Quilty is also prepared to experiment with mediums such as gouache and Chinese ink; not to mention spray paint that leaves the canvas and meanders across the wall. His greatest departures from the norm are two vigorous oil stick drawings made in Paris that are more abstract than anything else in this show.
This all adds up to a vigorous, bold, high-octane display that has its misses as well as its hits. Quilty’s reworkings of portraits of Streeton, McCubbin and Van Gogh are conceptually trite – with or without budgies – and leaden in execution. Some of his death-metal pictures would make panel van artists turn up their noses in disdain. We may have to accept such unevenness as part of Quilty’s artistic personality, and learn to live with it. I don’t know how he used to drive his Torana, but in his painting he is a natural-born risk-taker who prefers a glorious failure to the safety of a successful formula.
Idris Murphy’s survey, which stretches from 1986-2008, is a very different proposition. Perhaps the only thing he shares with Quilty is an affinity with Aboriginal art. There is no hit-and-miss experimentation, no meditation on social and cultural issues, yet Murphy – in his way – is even more raw and uncompromising in his vision of the Australian landscape.
It was a standard insult directed at modern artists that they suffered from some eye or brain disease that made them see the world in the most outlandish colours. One can imagine Murphy’s work being greeted in this manner because his palette is like that of no other Australian artist. Where everyone else would paint a blue sky and parched yellow earth, Murphy will discover great swathes of imperial purple, cobalt, ochre, pink or green. His trees are exercises in radical de-skilling, being little more than child-like hieroglyphics. His skies are one perpetual apocalypse. Somehow, miraculously, it works
We are faced with an exhibition that is completely understated but persistent. At first glance the paintings seem to melt away from one’s gaze: they are dark, introverted and secretive. Slowly they reveal themselves to the viewer, like wild animals that have gradually come to accept one’s presence. But this is only the case for those viewers that keep looking.
The key to Murphy’s work is that he is not painting the appearance of the landscape, but a highly subjective impression, shaped by his own perceptions and feelings. This is why he has titled the show, I and Thou, after the small but influential book by the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber. It is a basic existentialist idea, that one only becomes “I” through understanding one’s existence in relation to an Other; but Buber extends this to the relationship between a human being and God, and even to his own relationship with a tree. It is the tree idea for which Murphy has a special affection. In the catalogue he quotes Buber’s words: “in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is no longer It.
This intense identification with the landscape can be felt everywhere in this survey. It is a relationship that comes naturally to Aboriginal artists, but requires strenuous efforts on behalf of westerners, who have to break with the pictorial habits of a life-time. Whereas most non-indigenous artists tend to objectify the landscape, Murphy tries to fuse his own subjectivity with the particular mood and spirit of a place. The results are far from realistic but they are powerful and persuasive. This quest entails a leap of faith on behalf of the artist, a willingness to believe in a greater truth that lies beyond the veil of appearances. In trying to discern the atmosphere conjured up by these paintings one might use the word “spiritual” with confidence, and “mystical” with only slight embarrassment.
Ben Quilty Live!, UQ Art Museum, May 8-July 19, 2009
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, October 3, 2009