Quilty, Art Gallery of South Australia

The intense stare and bearded jawline of the artist, both as self-portrait and ‘hero shot’ photograph, features extensively in the publicity for AGSA’s Quilty exhibition. This is hardly surprising given Ben Quilty’s high profile, with his combination of down to earth interview style, progressive politics and bravura technique helping generate his regular media presence.

Quilty is best-known for his emotive, vigorous oil paintings. These dominate the present exhibition, although examples of his sculpture and ceramics also feature. Confronted with the frequently aggressive character of his paintings, with slashings of paint and violent distortion and fragmentation of forms, it seems perhaps ironic that his socially-engaged artistic practice began with works critiquing the destructive characteristics of youthful masculine identity. Quilty’s highly painterly style, with its connotations of combat, domination or competitive displays of physical prowess, could be read as a testosterone-driven performance of machismo, vis-à-vis Abstract Expressionism.

Similarly, Quilty’s expressive style suggests an outpouring of passionate emotions. This approach is typically used by artists to convey their angst or anguish, which can sometimes come across as egotistical and self-absorbed. However, the dominant themes of Quilty’s art suggest that he is primarily harnessing his feelings out of compassion for others, directing his aggression towards political and historical injustices which have caused unnecessary suffering.

Besides toxic masculinity, issues addressed in Quilty’s art include the intergenerational trauma (and guilt) stemming from colonisation, post-traumatic stress disorder and the current refugee crisis. Given the combination of weighty themes and Quilty’s meteoric art world acclaim, I approached this survey exhibition with a certain disquiet. It concerned me that by assuming the role of celebrity-artist-as-social-justice-warrior Quilty was effectively capitalising on the suffering of others for the advancement of his own career. However, this exhibition has convinced me that he is sincere in his convictions.

INSTALLATION VIEW -20190219 Ben Quilty sRGB 2000px Photo Grant Hancock 0157
Quilty featuring Irin Irinji and Fairy Bower Rorschach, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2019; photo: Grant Handcock.

Particularly moving is the group of twelve canvases depicting levitating orange life jackets. Like the relics of martyred saints, they serve as stand-ins and memorials for the asylum seekers who wore – and in many cases died – in such life jackets during perilous sea crossings. Adding a further emotional punch, each work is named after a refugee who committed suicide while held in detention. These are powerful statements about protection sought and denied, counterfeit life vests which sink rather than float serving as a potent metaphor for Australia’s border security policies.

In two of the works Quilty has sought to invoke the exiles’ agony more explicitly through the surreal addition of a screaming mouth or mournful eye. However, this is just as strongly conveyed through the seething impasto of his painted surfaces. The global refugee crisis is an issue most viewers have only encountered through media representations, but the sheer physicality of Quilty’s paintings helps invest the topic with a forceful immediacy. We are compelled to recognise that these are real flesh-and-blood people, not just statistics or fleeting images on a television screen.

In some works, when Quilty’s highly-textured paint surfaces butt up against areas of unpainted canvas, the stark contrast feels like an act of violence. In Captain S after Afghanistan (2012) the writhing soldier’s torso becomes devoid of volume when presented as an expanse of plain white. Thus, his physical strength is rendered useless as a defence against his mental torment.

The most technically and compositionally sophisticated works in the exhibition are Quilty’s recent series titled The Last Supper. Despite admiring their virtuosity, I found these paintings both overly melodramatic and too strongly reminiscent of earlier artists, such as André Masson.

By contrast, I considered Quilty’s Rorschach paintings more memorable and satisfying. In these works views of tranquil Australian landscapes have been doubled as mirror images, resembling the eponymous psychologist’s inkblots. Adding further depth and poignancy, some of the locations depicted were the sites of colonial massacres of local Aboriginal communities. These paintings deliver an immediate, stark visual impact, before gradually divulging more menacing undertones. They succeed in being simultaneously dramatic and understated. For me they were the most haunting works in the show.

This is a powerful exhibition, but the perpetual visual and emotional intensity of Quilty’s paintings can quickly become exhausting. Consequently, it was only after leaving the gallery that I felt able to properly contemplate many of these thought-provoking works. At its best, Quilty’s art makes a compelling impression, both in the direct physical encounter and in its after-effect.

 


Words by Ralph Body

Ralph Body is an art historian, researcher and reviewer.

Title Image: Ben Quilty; photo: Daniel Boud

Lillian Armfield: How Australia’s First Female Detective Took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and Changed the Face of the Force

Lillian Armfield: How Australia’s First Female Detective Took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and Changed the Face of the Force

Leigh Straw

Hachette 2018


 

Leigh Straw’s striking biography about Australia’s first policewoman, Lillian Armstrong, provides an insight into the life of the trailblazer that paved the way for Australian women in the police force. Detailing her life and career, Armstrong is brought to life though the infamous cases she worked; some of which have become ingrained in mythos of Australia. A rich landscape of Australia’s post first-wave feminist era is examined through the life of one courageous, paradigm defying woman, who rose to the rank of Chief of the Women’s Police.

By exposing the dark and dingy crevices of Australian history, Straw paints a gripping and occasionally graphic portrayal of a working-class Sydney – which is often forgotten in the national narrative. Her wry humour assists in highlighting the restrictive paradigms of early 20th century living and working for women, with the first female police women expected to protect women and children without being given the means or resources to protect herself. While providing a flattering account of a policewoman, Straw does not fall into the trap of glorifying or justifying the pitfalls of the early 20th century police forces in their treatment of women and Indigenous Australians.

Lillian Armfield has been largely forgotten by history despite her contributions to the force. The middle-aged woman, who had a habit of wearing pearls on her patrols, managed to win over the people ignored by the greater society. While exposing how difficult it was to live as a woman in the early decades of the 20th century, Straw further probes into the dangers of living as a woman generally and the failed measures taken by a patriarchal authority to protect them.

It is clear that Straw has an immense adoration and respect for her subject which she actively portrays through her writing. Her extensive research has paid off in creating a riveting homage to a woman who revolutionised women’s role in society.

While written superbly, Straw occasionally becomes so involved in the relaying Armstrong’s life, the reader is left behind if they do not have an extensive knowledge of underground Sydney crime. Although the stories and cases highlighted do make for fascinating reading regardless.

Lillian Armfield is a beacon of hope for women today, providing a shining example of a woman who defied social norms. Her impact on the police force is undeniable and despite history ignoring her in our national story, Armfield deserves the recognition which Straw has given her.

Overall this is a must read for true crime lovers and fans of strong, influential women who shaped our society.

4/5 Stars

 


Words by Georgina Banfield

Photo from Hachette: https://www.hachette.com.au/book/lillian-armfield