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.
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