Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Watson

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

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