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

Promoting Diversity in Comedy

“Hey Mum, I want to quit medicine and follow my passion for stand-up comedy.”

With a tone of disapproval, mixed in with unconditional love, my mother replied, “you da very funny man!”

As a son of Vietnamese refugees, my duty as a son of migrants was to “study hard, get a good job and start a family”. My parents escaped war-torn Vietnam in search for a better life and freedom. They left Vietnam on a tiny, wooden fishing boat with 250 other people, including my older brother who was only one month old.

What would compel my parents to take such a journey and risk not only their own lives but that of their first-born son?  What would compel me to risk my professional reputation and job security, for the laughs and adulation of an anonymous audience at the local open mic night?  My own leap towards artistic freedom and self-expression can never match the danger my parents made from Vietnam to Australia.

I can understand my parent’s strategy to put me on the path of higher education and job security. However, the wider Australian audience have progressed far quicker and further than that of the Asian community. The local Adelaide comedy circuit has been very supportive of me since day one, but I feel as though the Asian community are still behind when it comes to supporting the local arts.

Historically, the Asian community simply do not appreciate paying for the arts, let alone comedy. Only since I’ve become an artist, do I now understand that a $15 entry fee to a local show does not feed me physically, however, it does feed my soul (and my hunger to perform).

In Asian culture, comedians are normally portrayed as buffoons with buck teeth, or the village idiot. Humour and laughing at oneself is seen as a vector of shame, dishonour and loss of face to your family. Entry into medicine, law or engineering are seen as respectable tickets towards success. However, I know countless Asian doctors, lawyers and engineers who are dissatisfied with their life choice in their chosen fields. Many have found my story of breaking the mould, inspiring. It is hard as a person of Asian descent to find the courage to resist the wave of expectation of not only your parents and family, but your community.

Truthfully, as a minority grouping, finding our place in society, we need to be open to other occupations, especially in the arts. We can start changing our narrative, by coming out to support artists not only Asian artists at Oz Asia festivals and Lunar New Year, but the arts regardless. Only through bums on seats in the comedy rooms and pubs around the city, will this translate to bums in arts courses.

Gerard Matte in the Australian Journal of Comedy highlighted, “If comedy is a way of saying the forbidden, if it is, in Freudian terms a way of disobeying the internalised parent – the internalised authority system, then multicultural comedy in Australia has evolved to deal with two separate authority systems. One authority system is the culture of the country of origin; the other is that imposed by the local culture. The ethnic comedian has, in effect, two sets of parents, two political imperatives. One imperative is the pressure to respect and conform to the culture of the natural parents, the other is the pressure imposed by the wider culture to reject the natural parents and become part of a wider more homogenised society.”

Last year, I produced and promoted a comedy show dubbed “Pho Real”, featuring a line-up of all-Vietnamese stand-up comedians. It was an experiment to see if there was an audience from within the local Vietnamese community. To my delight, many of my Vietnamese friends and family came out to show support and enjoyed the night. I felt even more validated, that there was a row of Caucasian audience members who came because they simply loved comedy, regardless of the race orientated theme of the night.

If you would like to support local and interstate Asian comedy acts in the upcoming Adelaide Fringe here are my top three picks.

 

MJ Wong: In the Wong Family

MJ Wong was born into the w(r)ong family, then he fell in love and got married to the w(r)ong woman.
Will he ever belong, will two w(r)ongs ever make a right?

https://adelaidefringe.com.au/fringetix/mj-wong-in-the-wong-family-af2019

I have a show! Come see me!

Patrick Golamco is a regular on the Sydney open mic scene, performs improv comedy, and studies sketch comedy and scriptwriting. He has been a finalist in several U.S. scriptwriting competitions that recognised his knack for capturing the absurd!

https://adelaidefringe.com.au/fringetix/i-have-a-show-come-see-me-af2019

If You Laugh It’s Comedy And If You Don’t Laugh It’s Art

Fresh from Point Blank Music School (London) Loc Tran presents ‘If You Laugh It’s Comedy And If You Don’t Laugh It’s Art’, part comedy show, part DJ performance incorporating such hits as:

https://adelaidefringe.com.au/fringetix/if-you-laugh-it-s-comedy-and-if-you-don-t-laugh-it-s-art-af2019

 


Words by Dr Kim Le

Dr Kim Le is an Adelaide based psychiatrist, TEDx speaker and stand-up comedian. He will be performing with Adelaide Comedy’s Next Generation show, featuring a diverse line-up of Adelaide’s best up and coming stand-up comedians. His parents will be at his show.

Photo by israel palacio on Unsplash