As Art Month begins, there’s no doubt the most talked-about show in town is Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan, at the National Art School Gallery. If last Saturday’s attendances at this exhibition were of any significance, one might imagine Sydney was infected by a passion for art. Despite the rainy weather a surprising number of people were enjoying the Art Month circuit, although the Mardi Gras provided another reason to step outside.
After a long, lean period the city’s art dealers may be heartened by such vestiges of enthusiasm. They might also be pleased to find that the first exhibition of the new Olsen Irwin joint venture has been a success. Nicholas Harding has defied the lull in the market and sold everything in his Figures, Flora and Landscape show.
Perhaps people just like thick paint, which some instinctively see as a mark of ‘authenticity’. This view, which I don’t endorse, seems to believe that a larger quantity of paint acts as a guarantee of quality. It would be more insightful to argue that the best pictures can be measured by the amount of paint that ends up on the floor rather than the finished canvas, as one revision follows another.
Forsooth, this is all nonsense, as there is no sure-fire recipe for success in art. If there was, Ben Quilty (b. 1973) – who counts Nicholas Harding among his early sources of inspiration – would be an obligatory case study for any aspiring artist. Few Australian painters have enjoyed such a rapid rise to the top before the age of forty. His career has been punctuated by winning high-profile prizes: the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship (2002), The Doug Moran National Portrait Prize (2009) and the Archibald Prize (2011).
Quilty has been even more impressive in the way he has built up his public image. He’s charming, he’s intelligent; he’s a regular bloke. He has undertaken courses in women’s studies and Aboriginal studies at tertiary level, yet hasn’t developed an air of political piety. He can talk about “masculinity” as his major critical theme, and not make it sound like a topic for a university seminar. He’s a newly appointed Trustee at the Art Gallery of NSW, and was featured in a recent episode of the ABC’s Australian Story.
Furthermore, Quilty is a painter! While many contemporary artists are hiring people to produce art to their specifications, Quilty likes to get his hands dirty in the studio. He’s even happy to work within those time-honoured genres of portraiture, landscape and still life.
No wonder so many people hate him.
After Afghanistan, which features work Quilty made as part of a 2011 appointment as an official war artist, has proven to be a polarising event. Over the past week I’ve spoken with people who adore this show, and others who despise it. There’s a hint of the green-eyed monster about some of Quilty’s critics, but others argue with apparent sincerity that he is romanticising militarism and violence, or implicitly justifying Australia’s controversial involvement in the Middle East. Then there are those who simply dislike his expressionist, hit-or-miss painting style, complaining that his works lack form and structure.
The case for the prosecution has its points. The rapid, spontaneous manner in which Quilty applies the paint has a high risk of failure. Like many artists he might not be the best judge of his own work, as the experience of making a picture creates an intimate attachment to things that may seem dull or incoherent to the rest of us. On the other hand, when Quilty hits the mark the results have a sense of rightness that feels almost supernatural. To hang one of these pieces on the wall next to the tidy, cautious works of more conservative artists is like blasting them with a laser beam.
The new paintings in the Afghanistan series are largely portraits of servicemen, and one female soldier. They are much looser and wilder than any of Quilty’s previous portraits, with the possible exception of his so-called “Rorschach” works, which were markedly inconsistent. When one of the soldier paintings, Captain S after Afghanistan, was shown in last year’s Archibald Prize, it had a raw, anonymous feeling – more a quick figure sketch than a portrait.
The effect is completely different in the current exhibition, where the works have a cumulative power. In this context, one sees these pictures as portraits of damaged, exhausted individuals who still carry around the stress and sadness of their time in Afghanistan. With many of these pictures Quilty has asked his subjects to visit his studio in the Southern Highlands, for a one-on-one session. He also asked them to pose nude, not giving them the option of using a uniform or even civilian clothes, as a barrier against the emotions their tours of duty conjure up.
Quilty allowed the sitters to choose their own poses and the results are revealing. Many of the men lie sprawled, as if overcome with fatigue. One might even see them as dead or wounded bodies laid out on the battlefield or on a slab. The exception is Captain Kate Porter, who sits upright, one arm draped across a bare torso, as if she is enduring the indignity of a strip search.
Either way, there is something unsettling and confrontational about these portraits, which are so completely different to the standard image of the heroic soldier in uniform. Quilty seems to thrive on this edginess, enjoying the slight tension between artist and sitter. It’s something that gets lost when one paints mainly from photographs, and this series was a deliberate attempt to restore that frisson.
What he has produced is an entirely new kind of war painting. None of the artists who have been sent to combat zones by the Australian War Memorial since 1999, when Rick Amor and Wendy Sharpe visited East Timor, have made anything to compare with Quilty’s work.
There have been many exceptional pictures produced by this program, and every artist says the experience has changed their lives, but no-one has captured the underlying trauma of active service so vividly. Quilty has made no attempt to normalise the experience or document more cheerful, casual moments.
Quilty says that he quickly decided “nothing is safe in Afghanistan”, finding Kandahar to be a wild and scary place. His stay lasted less than a month but he had ample time to meet the soldiers and listen to their stories. He was intensely affected by the experience, which must have made his previous preoccupations seem melodramatic or frivolous.
Despite the camaraderie he seems to have enjoyed with the soldiers, to say that Quilty is glorifying their calling is no less absurd than to imagine that Zero Dark Thirty endorses the use of torture. In these portraits he is interested in the way ordinary men and women accommodate themselves to the most extreme circumstances. He has tried to delve beneath the uniformed surface and locate the hidden core of anxiety that has grown like a tumor. If learning to cope with one’s fears is a form of heroism, so be it. There’s nothing glamorous about the process.
Sometimes that anxiety is given a concrete form, as in a floating black disc that partially obscures the features of Trooper Luke Korman, or the funereal expression on the face of Air Commodore John Oddie.
These portraits have a commanding presence, but the most dramatic and original pictures in this show may be Quilty’s paintings of wrecked vehicles – Bushmaster and Tarin Kot, Hilux; and the surreal vision of Kandahar, which resembles a blob of angry, dark protoplasm floating over the landscape.
The Bushmaster is a formidable armoured vehicle, but here it has been torn apart by an explosion. Quilty could just as easily have portrayed these cars as boys’ toys, like the Toranas he painted in his early shows as icons of male youth culture. But he has tried to create an image that is the antithesis of a celebration. In their ruined state the Bushmaster and the Hilux testify to the dangers of this peace-keeping mission and the ever-present threat of death.
As for Kandahar, it must be the strangest image ever to be produced as a result of an official commission from the Australian War Memorial. While most works by war artists stick to observable reality, this painting is pure science fiction – a monster from the Id, like the creature in Forbidden Planet. The central motif acts as a condensation of all the darkness and fear that rises from this battle-scarred region. It hovers like a menacing black cloud, ready at any moment to unleash a new storm.
Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan, National Art School Gallery, February 21 – April 13, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 9, 2013