Artist Ben Quilty is tak­ing on the world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

IN the long, hot Jan­uary days af­ter he took out the top award at the in­au­gu­ral Pru­den­tial Eye Awards in Sin­ga­pore, Ben Quilty was filled with dis­quiet.

Speech­less af­ter beat­ing 500 other nom­i­nated artists from across Asia, he col­lected $US50,000 and an in­vi­ta­tion to be the sub­ject of a pres­ti­gious solo ex­hi­bi­tion at the in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed Saatchi Gallery, Lon­don: the first Aus­tralian to be in­vited to do so.

How­ever, he soon be­gan to doubt the ve­rac­ity of his achieve­ment.

“It was just un­be­liev­able. I hon­estly didn’t know what to say when they an­nounced me as win­ner. I thought I might have a chance of win­ning the paint­ing prize, but to go on and win the whole thing as well, it was in­sane. And to be pre­sented the award by Nigel Hurst, di­rec­tor of the Saatchi Gallery and some­one who I have looked up to, and ad­mired for many years, it was just one of those mo­ments you think: ‘Is this real?’ For days af­ter­wards I con­tin­u­ously felt like email­ing the gallery and say­ing: ‘Is Ben Quilty hav­ing a show with you?’, be­cause it felt that un­real.”

Old mate and Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia di­rec­tor Nick Mitze­vich of­fered some sage ad­vice. “It was Nick who fi­nally said to me, ‘Ben you are go­ing to Saatchi. For­get ev­ery­thing else. Shut the stu­dio door, and lock it, and start work­ing.’ ”

Four months on from the award, a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Saatchi Gallery and Par­al­lel Con­tem­po­rary Art, a foun­da­tion that sup­ports emerg­ing Asian artists, Quilty took his friend’s ad­vice. He is ready. QUILTY emerges from his ware­house stu­dio in NSW’s south­ern high­lands. Out­side it is a nippy au­tumn day, and na­ture is bed­ding down for win­ter. But in­side the tur­pen­tine-tinged smell of the pain­ter’s para­pher­na­lia and the soul­ful mu­sic of Missy Hig­gins warm the space. Quilty is a fan. He made a por­trait of the diminu­tive singer two days ear­lier when she sat for him. It hangs, an­drog­y­nous and wai­flike, soon to be auc­tioned off for a mu­sic char­ity’s fundraiser.

As he talks in­tently about his ap­proach­ing Saatchi ex­hi­bi­tion, the huge ac­tiv­ity of the past year, and what the fu­ture may hold, Quilty strokes the head of his dog Betsy. He is, he agrees, a busy man. He func­tions “with anx­i­ety and stress and breath­less­ness and by eat­ing well, and only hav­ing two cups of cof­fee a day”.

One of the youngest trustees ap­pointed to the Art Gallery of NSW in 2012 when he was just 38, Quilty — when not paint­ing — is not afraid to use his grav­i­tas as a plat­form to point out so­cial in­jus­tices, and shine a light on the darker parts of our his­tory.

En­gag­ing and ar­tic­u­late, he is a draw­card speaker across the coun­try: writ­ers fes­ti­vals, univer­sity lec­tures and ex­hi­bi­tion open­ings, par­tic­u­larly his own.

Lisa Slade, project cu­ra­tor at AGSA, says Quilty has be­come “one of Aus­tralia’s most im­por­tant artists”. She first worked with him, along­side Mitze­vich, a decade ago dur­ing his “To­rana days” — his break­through se­ries painted while on the trav­el­ling Brett White­ley Schol­ar­ship, in which he painted the iconic Aus­tralian car.

“Ben has be­come a sort of touch­stone for many Aus­tralian cu­ra­tors and col­lec­tors, I think be­cause his pro­lific cat­a­logue of work con­flates Aus­tralian his­tory, and all its dis­crep­an­cies and con­tra­dic­tions, with his own sense of self, and per­sonal iden­tity,” she says.

“He has also, quite un­ex­pect­edly for him, be­come an im­por­tant fig­ure to a wider au­di­ence of Aus­tralians be­cause he’s able to ar­tic­u­late some of the is­sues around who we are, and where we are go­ing.”

Quilty’s body of work from his de­ploy­ment with Aus­tralian troops in Afghanistan as of­fi­cial war artist in Oc­to­ber 2011 at­tracted crit­i­cal ac­claim. Raw and mov­ing, Ben Quilty Af­ter Afghanistan opened at the Na­tional Art School, Syd­ney, in early 2013

It was a bone-crush­ing full house of the great and the good, and cen­tre stage were his trau­ma­tised sub­jects, re­turned soldiers, now his good friends. The show is still tour­ing the coun­try. It fin­ishes at the Aus­tralian War Me­mo­rial in May next year.

Quilty’s out­raged crit­i­cisms of the Aus­tralian De­fence Force and Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fair on the ABC’s Aus­tralian Story for a per­ceived re­luc­tance to fully ac­knowl­edge, and

prop­erly treat post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der in re­turn­ing soldiers has made him the go-to quasi-spokesman on PTSD. It also earned him as many fans as de­trac­tors. Only last week, he says, he lis­tened to some­one on the ra­dio call him a “bleed­ing heart”.

“Afghanistan changed my ca­reer more than any­thing else,” re­veals Quilty. “The way these young men and women were treated when they came home was like I could never imag­ine treat­ing some­one. Zero com­pas­sion, and that’s sadly an on­go­ing thing.”

Com­pas­sion is some­thing close to Quilty’s heart. He grew up in Ken­thurst in Syd­ney’s north­west; school cap­tain in Year 6 and dux in art ev­ery year in high school at a Catholic boys school in Cas­tle Hill. But it was an ex­pe­ri­ence at high school — be­ing flogged with the strap — that had a last­ing ef­fect.

“I went from win­ning the ci­ti­zen­ship award in Year 6 to hav­ing the shit flogged out of me in Year 7, and that is what I think re­ally taught me to rebel for such a long time, and to mis­trust all forms of re­li­gious author­ity,” he says.

His par­ents, Richard and Dianne, were both so­cially and po­lit­i­cally minded, al­beit from op-



posites sides of the spec­trum, and im­parted in Quilty a great love of the arts. Quilty still re­mem­bers his first visit to AGNSW as a boy.

“I played cricket and ten­nis,” he says. “But to walk into that gallery for the first time made me re­alise there was this much more cere­bral build­ing that hon­oured an­other form of ex­cel­lence other than sport, and that was an amaz­ing eye open­ing thing for me.”

In 1991 Quilty’s Year 12 art ma­jor­work was ex­hib­ited in the AGNSW’s Art Ex­press, an an­nual show dis­play­ing works from promis­ing Year 12 art stu­dents. He went on to study vis­ual arts at Syd­ney Univer­sity’s Col­lege of the Arts and the Univer­sity of Western Syd­ney. He also stud­ied Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture and his­tory at Monash Univer­sity. Quilty has, he adds, been paint­ing full-time for 12 years. THE artist stands, fo­cus re­turn­ing to Lon­don where he will show some 25 paint­ings, and walks to the far wall of the stu­dio.

Two rows of new works, 10 in to­tal, hang in silent tri­umph. They are his new­est se­ries of por­traits and self-por­traits, made with Saatchi show, which opens in July, in mind. His sub­jects are the near­est and dear­est males in his life. “Paint­ing them is like sim­ply hold­ing a ge­netic mir­ror up against my­self,” he says. He has painted these sit­ters, over and over, through the past eight years, and many be­fore he moved into this stu­dio. With each sit­ting he takes his sub­ject where the cre­ative free­dom takes him. Oils slathered and lath­ered on to can­vas with his sig­na­ture cake pal­ette knives. Works cre­ated in his vis­ceral, vis­cous prac­tice.

Dad Richard is up there. So too is a for­mer Viet­nam vet­eran, Pri­vate Phil But­ler. Quilty met and be­friended him through his work with re­turned soldiers.

Both are por­trayed as English toby jugs. His old mate “Lloydy” is shown as a mush­room, al­lud­ing, Quilty says, to for­mer wild days as young men, ex­per­i­ment­ing with hal­lu­cino­genic fungi.

An­dre de Borde, gallery cu­ra­tor, some­time as­sis­tant and long-time friend, has mor­phed into a chicken. This one was painted af­ter the pair lunched in the lo­cal pub. Son Joe, 8, brother to Livvy, 5, fea­tures too.

“It’s al­ways a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Joe,” Quilty says fondly, look­ing at the work. “Joe makes the pose and de­cides what he wants to be. He de­cided he wanted to be a devil so I gave him evil eyes and fangs.”

Later this week, works will be crated and freighted to Lon­don. Works such as AGSA’s 12panel Evening Shad­ows Rorschach af­ter Johnstone, and the AGNSW’s Fairy Bow­ers Fall Rorschach. Quilty cre­ated these vast pan­elled works us­ing a tech­nique based on the inkblot method de­vised by Her­mann Rorschach to di­ag­nose men­tal ill­ness.

Joe calls it “mak­ing squashies”. In both paint­ings, Quilty re­vis­its a con­stant theme in his work as he strives to re­dress the his­tor­i­cal omis­sions of Abo­rig­i­nal mas­sacres by late 19th-century Euro­pean artists. Atroc­i­ties that were painted out, Quilty is paint­ing back in.

His work­ing ti­tle for this new body of work is Straight White Male, al­though the fi­nal ti­tle, and in­clu­sion of works for the Saatchi show, is yet to be fi­nally de­cided. Un­like a spon­sored ex­hi­bi­tion open­ing at a smaller Saatchi gallery to­day by fel­low Aus­tralian artist Richard Mau- rovic (see in­set story), Quilty’s works will not be for sale. He will meet Saatchi hon­chos in Hong Kong in com­ing weeks to nut out those de­tails.

The Saatchi Gallery, of course, is the fifth most vis­ited mu­seum in the world. More than 1.5 mil­lion wan­der through its doors each year. Founded in 1985 by for­mer ad­ver­tis­ing supremo, and avid con­tem­po­rary art col­lec­tor Charles Saatchi, it has ex­hib­ited some of the most iconic works in pop­u­lar cul­ture. Think Tracey Emin’s con­tro­ver­sial work My Bed and Damien Hirst’s tiger shark in a tank of formalde­hyde, The Phys­i­cal Im­pos­si­bil­ity of Death in the Mind of Some­one Liv­ing.

“This por­trait se­ries is a light­hearted yet dark ges­ture that ex­am­ines the role of my­self as a straight white male in our so­ci­ety, which is prob­a­bly the luck­i­est way to be born on our earth at the mo­ment,” Quilty says. He stops and points to a self-por­trait. He has painted him­self with a huge snake-like nose. “Un­til re­cently I had never thought of it like that be­fore, so I

started mak­ing paint­ings with these metaphor­i­cal ap­pendages. There is a sense of the ab­surd but what I am do­ing is ask­ing my­self, and the view­ers, to imag­ine liv­ing with some­thing, whether it be gen­der, sex­u­al­ity or eth­nic­ity, that made your po­si­tion less ten­able. Not the par­a­digm, but the po­lar­ity of the eas­i­est liv­ing po­si­tion in so­ci­ety.”

It is here in this stu­dio that Quilty cre­ated much of his ac­claimed work dur­ing the past few years. His Archibald-win­ning por­trait of dear friend and artist Mar­garet Ol­ley was fin­ished here from hard ground etch­ings he made from live sit­tings in her Padding­ton home. The work is still on dis­play in the AGNSW, and Quilty says he never gets used to see­ing it there, side by side with Wil­liam Do­bell’s 1948 win­ning por­trait of Ol­ley as a young woman.

Quilty’s wife, writer Kylie Need­ham is cur­rently work­ing on the fourth draft of a screen­play she has writ­ten about Ol­ley’s life as a young woman. It is to be made into a film by

Sam­son and Delilah team Warwick Thorn­ton and Kath Shelper.

One day Quilty says he will bring his Ol­ley por­trait home to the house he shares with Need­ham, Joe and Livvy. He will hang it in the kitchen where the fam­ily eats.

“I made the paint­ing of Mar­garet, and it went and it won and I haven’t seen it home again, since, and the paint­ings of those people close to me are very per­sonal re­ally. Mar­garet was the true pa­tron of my work, and she bought them and do­nated them to mu­se­ums all over the place. She was also a very crit­i­cal per­son. She saw in my work so much pos­si­bil­ity, I think, but she was al­ways hop­ing that pos­si­bil­ity would be ful­filled by me start­ing to paint still lifes — flow­ers and things. But that is never go­ing to hap­pen. My work is al­ways au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal and I can’t help but look for the flaws; the dark­ness in the light. I think that is what artists are sup­posed to do.”

Quilty’s Saatchi show is a lin­eage of work, and a con­tin­u­a­tion of some of the themes that con­cern him: the Euro­pean coloni­sa­tion of this coun­try, the role of straight white males in that coloni­sa­tion, and the de­struc­tion of Abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture, and the land.

“Where I live here in the south­ern high­lands, people al­ways say: “It’s so beau­ti­ful and English.” Well, it was cold cli­mate rain­for­est and wet spi­ral for­est all the way to here — and they cleared it. It’s ac­tu­ally a re­ally scarred land­scape that we have cre­ated to pre­tend we are some­where else. So the Saatchi show is about ‘Aus­tralian-ness’ but a much less su­per­fi­cial look at Aus­tralia than people in Eng­land are used to, I think. Not the idea of Aus­tralia as all beau­ti­ful beaches, the Opera House, this lar­rikin cul­ture and cricket. Many of us come from over there — we are them in a sense. So I think a lot of the work I make is about that no­tion of place, and where we all fit in.” QUILTY moves to the back of the stu­dio. On a large ta­ble sit ce­ramic sculp­tures. He scoured lo­cal shops to find an­tique jugs, then sculpted faces on them, took moulds and re­cast them. Straight white males in porce­lain.

“There is a real di­a­logue be­tween the paint­ings and the jugs in that I re­ally see the con­fronting flaws of that straight white male par­a­digm, and how em­bar­rass­ing those men can be. For hav­ing this sense of right­eous, and this sense of self-im­por­tance sim­ply be­cause they were born one way.

“I mean, that’s quite ab­surd and quite hu­mor­ous to watch if you can get out­side it and look. Right now our coun­try is run by straight white males bar one woman. I ac­tu­ally find it quite un­com­fort­able to talk about be­ing straight, and white and male be­cause we are in that po­si­tion of dom­i­nance and power. Same as in Eng­land.”

Slade is in­trigued to see how the Brits re­spond to Quilty’s work.

“It is go­ing to be fas­ci­nat­ing to see what hap­pens when you talk back to a Bri­tish au­di­ence,” says Slade. “What is their per­cep­tion, ap­pre­ci­a­tion and un­der­stand­ing of Aus­tralian his­tory? The his­tory of Aus­tralian artists in Lon­don is fas­ci­nat­ing one and as a male artist in­ter­ested in land­scape, al­beit in a changeling way, Ben is



part of that on­go­ing tra­di­tion which is in­ter­est­ing. He re­ally trou­bles this idea of place, and the idea that we im­port these vi­sions of place back to Eng­land, just as I think Sid­ney Nolan and Rus­sell Drysdale did all those years be­fore him.”

Quilty rou­tinely ex­hibits in Sin­ga­pore, Hong Kong and South Korea. But his her­alded show at Saatchi has al­ready opened new doors.

“I have got gal­leries ap­proach­ing me from all around the world be­cause of Saatchi. Be­cause they heard and they know and they say: ‘ Bang we want to be a part of that.’ ”

Af­ter Lon­don, Quilty will spend three months in Paris with his fam­ily. He will ex­hibit at Ga­lerie Allen, a new art space es­tab­lished by Aus­tralian gal­leri­est Joseph Allen Shea. And al­though not at lib­erty yet to say too much, he does re­veal he is in se­ri­ous talks with a ma­jor Asian gallery, keen to sign him up as one of only two non-na­tional artists

“I think ev­ery time any Aus­tralian artist gets the op­por­tu­nity to show out­side of Aus­tralia, with the spot­light on like with this show, there is the ex­pec­ta­tion that we’ll all of us be taken out­side. I don’t think that’s go­ing to hap­pen, but it’s a great thing for the Saatchi Gallery to let us do this. To let me do this.”

Ben Quilty’s solo ex­hi­bi­tion at Saatchi Gallery, Lon­don, opens on July 3.

Ben Quilty with his dog in his stu­dio in Robertson, NSW

From left, Air Com­modore John Od­die looks at Quilty’s por­trait of him; Cap­tain S Af­ter Afghanistan (2012); Quilty and his chil­dren with Mar­garet Ol­ley and his Archibald prize-win­ning por­trait of her

Saatchi Gallery chief ex­ec­u­tive Nigel Hurst

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