Jason Benjamin, I Thought You’d Always Be Here (2011). Collection Rockhampton Art Gallery, Queensland. Gift of the artist under the Australian government’s Cultural Gifts Program 2012. On display until March 20. In 2003 Jason Benjamin gained a degree of celebrity when he became the youngest Australian artist to sell a single work for $50,000. He also was named one of Australia’s 50 most collectable artists by Australian Art Collector magazine.
His work has been collected by institutions such as the National Gallery of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria, but it also has been bought by private collectors such as American actor Kevin Spacey.
Benjamin’s art is diverse, covering genres such as still life, landscape and portraiture. He is a regular finalist in the Archibald Prize. This year, for instance, at the Art Gallery of NSW he displayed a portrait of singer-songwriter Paul Kelly. In 2005 he won the Packing Room Prize for his portrait of actor Bill Hunter.
But it is really Benjamin’s painstakingly rendered landscapes that dominate his practice. He paints the landscape, every blade of grass and an endlessly shifting sky, with great affection. He can spend 10 to 12 hours a day for weeks making the tiny brushstrokes that form the picture. People are distinctly absent from his landscapes but he adds evocative titles, such as Can You Stay Here Next to Me? or Was It Too Much to Love?, which inspire you to imagine your own narrative.
When Benjamin prepares his landscapes, he makes lengthy field trips. He is particularly enamoured of the endless expanse of the Hay Plains or the Monaro region of NSW.
“I like the idea of going repeatedly back to a place, as in limiting the radius that you travel in,” he says in a YouTube interview. “You experience a place by going back over the same ground and you realise it is never the same … this opens up a limitless range of compositional possibilities.”
Benjamin’s love of painting didn’t begin in rural Australia, however, but in New York. Born in Melbourne in 1971, he had a peripatetic childhood living in Sydney, the US and Mexico.
As a teenager he visited New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art where he saw the work of Jackson Pollack, which he recounts as the starting point. He then studied art at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute before returning to live in Sydney. It was then an artists’ trip to the Central Desert that sparked his love of the Australian landscape.
One of his landscapes,
I Thought You’d Al- ways Be Here (2011), is in the collection of Queensland’s Rockhampton Art Gallery. When I visit the gallery, I’m shown the work by curator Diana Warnes. She explains that this painting was acquired after it was shown in the 2012 Gold Award, a prestigious biennial event for contemporary Australian art.
Warnes says that although Benjamin’s paintings are based on Australian places, his compositions owe much to the Chinese tradition of landscape painting.
As Warnes and I look at I Thought You’d Always Be Here, she expresses a feeling of melancholy. “I find this a familiar space but haunting at the same time. The little motifs he puts into the work create this sense of longing or loss or despair. The bitumen road, the dying tree and the crows, or birds of menace, and this foreboding sky.
“There is also a meditative quality about it. His work has that intense process of care and concern. Every paint stroke on that canvas is deliberate and loaded with intention.
“I look at those beautiful clouds that are so full and soft and emotional. I look at how he has used different techniques to create the hot bitumen road with the cracks in it and this scrubby grasslands and the smooth trunks of the gum trees. I feel it is a work I can sit in front of for quite some time.”
Oil on linen; 180cm x 120cm