It’s often said that having a lot of enemies must mean you’re doing something right. Ben Quilty discovered long ago that the price of fame for an artist is the undying enmity of a large proportion of one’s peers. This hasn’t put the brakes on his glorious ascent but neither has it left him unscarred. If Quilty is currently one of the annointed saints of contemporary Australian art he’s a good match for St. Sebastian, the human target.
He now wishes he’d never agreed to pose with the barbed wire crown for that photo in The Good Weekend. It was pushing the envelope a little too far. There are probably lots of things he regrets, but this is counterbalanced by a self-confidence and conviction that has made him one of the few living Australian artists whose name rings a bell with the general public.
Quilty’s fan club is even stronger among collectors and curators. The survey show, Quilty, has just been launched at the Art Gallery of South Australia, and will travel on to the state galleries of Queensland and New South Wales. This is a rare honour nowadays, when most retrospectives are single-venue affairs.
It’s even more remarkable that Quilty is being feted by the AGNSW at the age of 46 when such stalwarts as Charles Blackman or Robert Dickerson both died without a retrospective in their home city. To further complicate matters Quilty is having the show while he is a trustee of the AGNSW, which is a breach of the usual protocols.
The curators who have put together this show, along with a massive catalogue stuffed with colour plates and some well-written essays, are obviously admirers, but they might also point to the artist’s high recognition factor.
Quilty has become known for his activism as much as his art: for his passionate, if unsuccessful, campaign to save convicted drug-smugglers, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, from execution; for his visit to a refugee camp in Lebanon, and to the isle of Lesbos, where he looked out upon a sea of discarded orange life jackets; for a stint as a war artist in Afghanistan, which led to a show of searing portraits of soldiers; for his consistent championing of indigenous people and their art.
For many people Quilty is defined by these campaigns. He is a man of conviction in an era when politicians have alienated the public with their petty deceits and opportunism. He’s a straight-talker who leaves one in no doubt as to his sincerity. If it’s not too much of a contradiction he’s also an instinctive social chameleon, able to adapt his persona to many different audiences.
All these abilities have been on display during his trusteeship at the AGNSW where he is believed to wield a disproportionate influence. True or false it’s one of the reasons he’s the object of so much scuttlebutt. There are certainly areas in which he has invited criticism, such as his efforts to ‘revitalise’ the Archibald Prize, but there’s a good deal of spite and envy involved.
The sins and the flaws are there to behold but I can’t join the ranks of the Quilty nay-sayers. One doesn’t achieve what he has achieved in less than 20 years by dint of cunning or ruthless ambition. Quilty is a remarkable artist and a remarkable person.
Many artists are happy to trumpet their own radicality while producing hermetic products for a small group of cognoscenti. Others turn their work into a billboard for social and political issues. Quilty, in comparison, is a genuine risk-taker. He emerged as a figurative painter at a time when the art scene was acting as if painting was a relic of a bygone age, and made everybody take notice.
He hit upon a succession of themes that forced recognition, from Toranas and budgies, to babies and hamburgers, to the antics of drunken white males. Relatively few of these works have made it into this exhibition, which is a shame, but there is a logic in the selection.
By cutting back on the early work (which everybody seems to love), Lisa Slade and her colleagues invite viewers to focus on Quilty as an innovator, willing to reinvent himself as regular intervals. The sixteen small canvases and one over-sized steel birdcage that make up the installation, Inhabit(2010) seemed like a bizarre departure when it was first shown. It features Captain Cook’s face gradually emerging from demonic chaos, morphing into a skull, and then into Quilty’s self-portrait.
When the Rorschach paintings came along shortly afterwards they were equally unsettling, but made a tremendous impact in the 2014 Adelaide Biennial. Quilty’s theme was colonisation and the dark shadows it has thrown on Australian history. Instead of a sermon he gave us a virtuoso display of oil painting that imposed itself on the viewer through scale and expressiveness.
With the Afghanistan portraits he wasn’t content to simply paint the soldiers at work, he wanted to get under their skin and into their heads. He had seen the psychological damage that eats away at those who serve. In his paintings he aimed to strip away all the nationalistic, patriotic sentiment and reveal what it really felt like to be a soldier.
In every series there are art historical references. His image of Captain Cook was borrowed from Nathaniel Dance’s welknown portrait. The Island(2013) in the Adelaide Biennial, drew on a Tasmanian landscape by Haughton Forrest. In the Afghanistan series, a nude portrait of Captain Kate Porter is reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s Puberty, in its pose and sense of vulnerability. Look at any Quilty painting and there are vestiges of artists such as Chaim Soutine, Frank Auerbach and Philip Guston.
When we finally come to the most recent paintings, from 2017 onwards, Quilty takes a leap into the unknown. Each of these vast canvases looks like Gericault in a blender, with a few surrealists thrown in for added colour. Quilty’s Last suppersare an indigestible mixture of abstraction and figuration, in which energy of execution takes precedence over composition. Justin Paton calls them ‘grotesques’, but that’s an understatement. These are not easy pictures to love, but neither are they the work of an artist resting on his laurels. To see these paintings at the end of this show is the very best way of approaching them. They seem less like an anomaly and more like the culmination of a slow-building, volcanic impulse.
Quilty’s technique can be hit-or-miss, so a carefully selected survey is the very best way of looking at his work. His admirers see him as a colourist but there are too many bright and bilious combinations to sustain that claim. Nevertheless there are few artists of his generation who could match this show for sheer bravura. Quilty may be contemporary art’s version of a walking headline but he makes everyone else look like they’re not trying.
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2 March – 2 June, 2019
Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 29 June – 31 Oct.
Art Gallery of NSW, 9 Nov. 2019 – 2 Feb. 2020
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March, 2019