Free Fall

The Beach

Entangled Landscape

Ben Quilty - Still life after the virus

27 October – 21 November 2020

Quilty makes no fuss in selecting his objects, leaving the studio in search of ‘beauty’ was neither responsible, or, as it turns out, necessary. Multi-vitamins, disinfectant, clamps, wine glasses and pumpkins are gathered to create disjointed clusters. These commonplace markers connect his experience of isolation with many of our own. Quilty creates amusing rhythms in these undulating compositions, with characteristic blocks of colour.

In a work titled The Last Supper, 2016, Quilty painted a feverish image in the aftermath of the US presidential election. The human subjects here, dead or dying, are centrepiece in the newest iterations of what we might call the banquet series. Is this a pseudo-cannibalistic feast, autopsy or vivisection? These are an unsettling yet fine reimagining of 14th century deathbed scenes come Jan van Calcar’s eccentric human anatomies.

Beginning in the 16th century, in a time of great mercantile wealth and constant military conflict, a dark style of still- life painting emerged in Europe. Known as vanitas, the paintings were lush with symbolism and sought to emphasise the impermanence of life, the futility of earthly pleasure, and the pointlessness of pursuing power and wealth. It was the human skull which most famously came to embody the central themes of this style. Quilty places skulls with mass produced, mundane products of modernity. Glen 20 and multi-vitamins are particularly emotive, reflecting the highly commercialised, sensationalistic ideas of human health and urban sanitation in the modern world. Depicted in such a manner, they are gifted novel symbolic power.

Words by Milena Stojanovska, 2020

ABOUT THE ARTIST

In 2019 the first major survey exhibition of Quilty's work was presented by the Art Gallery of South Australia. Curated by Lisa Slade, the exhibition QUILTY toured to the Art Gallery of NSW and QAGOMA. Quilty has been a finalist in the prestigious Wynne and Archibald prizes and won the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 2009 and the Archibald Prize in 2011 with his portrait of artist, Margaret Olley. Also in 2011, Quilty travelled to Afghanistan as an official war artist with The Australian War Memorial. He was invited by World Vision Australia to travel to Greece, Serbia and Lebanon with author, Richard Flanagan, to witness firsthand the international refugee crisis in 2016. His work is represented in numerous major public, corporate and private collections including the National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of South Australia, National Gallery of Victoria and QAGOMA.

Ben Quilty - 150 years

Nellies Glen has been a favourite gathering place for locals for over 150 years. With beautiful ferns and moss covered rocks it provides a quiet haven for swimming or just relaxing in the cool, quiet surrounds.” – Budderoo National Park information plaque.

Through Quilty’s ominous and heterogeneous approach in 150 years each work invites us to participate in a critical discussion. The same Quilty who explored the spiritual hollowness of contemporary masculinity in paintings of passed-out mates is present here, yet these themes are refracted through the decades since, through experience, a global and pervasive uncertainty, and a tangible level of disillusionment. In an age of authoritarian revival, Quilty’s decades-long interrogation of masculinity is gaining momentum.

Recently dubbed a ‘critical citizen’ by curator Lisa Slade, Quilty’s new work at Tolarno more explicitly depicts a self-critical citizen. In this case Self may not necessarily connote oneself, but one’s milieu, an individual splattered, dispersed throughout their socio-cultural plane. The artist – as well as a few family members and friends – are present in the landscape of the Rorschach, in the abstract works, and of course in Santa himself.

The first iteration of Santa, which appeared in 2018, was perhaps best confirmed by the response they elicited from media commentators. The depiction of Santa drunk and urinating in a pot plant was deemed iconoclastic enough for right-wing commentator Andrew Bolt to assert that “the new racism” had been “rubbed in his face”. Quilty chose Santa because he is (like the artist) a straight white male, but it is clear the series is as much about consumerism as it is about whiteness. Santa teaches us to be good, not for the sake of goodness, but solely in the pursuit of material reward. His dishevelled presentation in these paintings reflects this crass and deeply cynical ethos. With his imposing, bloated head, Quilty’s Santa carries something of the famous facade on Mussolini’s headquarters, or Big Brother. He does of course, surveil all year round.

Santa reminds us of something that has largely been overlooked in Quilty’s work, that given the right subject matter, it can actually be funny. That a satire of a fictional children’s character, who essentially serves no role in society, was received as a serious attack on Western values, or patriarchy, perhaps illustrates the impotency of those values more than anything else.

The knotted forms in The Interior and The Ludicrous Mode are an athletic accomplishment, tying together a myriad of elements, led by wielding brushstrokes. As always in his work, the blank sections of canvas are used economically, surrounded by decisive, thick slatherings of oil paint. Grey is prominently featured, often as a backdrop for vibrant bursts of red, pink and orange. In works such as At the bottom of the fish tank, colour and form work rhythmically, a choreography of our focus, dragged through the tangled composition. That is the tension here,

that which tells us where to look and in what rough order, and that which simultaneously resists literal interpretation.

In Self-Portrait, about my Brother, the thematic issues explored elsewhere find a sounding board. A component or subtext in other works, the artist appears fully here. The palette used in the figure is curiously matched by the background. But rather than melting away as one might expect, he is lifted from the canvas. A few streaks of blue pull the character forward with a bizarre confidence.

150 Year, Rorschach paints a landscape Quilty and his son Joe found during a bushwalk in the Southern Highlands. A plaque on site (quoted above) suggests the waterhole has only been visited and enjoyed for 150 years. 150 Year, Rorschach does not depict a specific tale of atrocity, marking it apart from a number of his earlier trademark works. The specific location is secondary to the beings which animate it, and what they have come to represent. A cat, toad, fox and goat adorn this site. The century before federation saw a long period of ‘Acclimatisation’, when all native species were vilified by white colonisers and the beasts of Europe were promoted, consciously seeded into the landscape. A systemic project one historian has wryly described as ‘ecological cringe’. The introduced species of course do not act alone, a Rodin sculpture is mimicked, dancing jubilantly with the pests, as thick in the Western canon as he is here, surrounded by suctioned paint.

The huge mirror opens itself up to us, peeling itself from the centre and the inside, drawing us deeply into the blasted Australian landscapes which in this time hang on the precipice. These fractured ecologies are addressed with the textural complexity of the Rorschach, the miniature waves hanging in their thousands.

The sign at Nellies Glen, like so many others peppered throughout the Australian landscape, is a mechanism of erasure. It illustrates how effortless this forgetting, both intentional and subconscious, has become. The vast painting is therefore an invitation to better, more attentive ways of looking.

– Milena Stojanovska

Bondi

On Lizard island

The Beach No. 2

The Great Barrier Reef

The Peanut Eaters no. 3

Free Fall

The Crowd

The Beach

Cronulla

Lockdown

After Life 2

After Life

The Devils Backbone

Six Feet

Prayer

The Consultant (After Bellows)

Between Rounds

Ben Quilty

A celebration of the last two decades of work from Australian artist Ben Quilty, to coincide with a major retrospective of his work. With a Foreword by Richard Flanagan.

Ben Quilty has worked across a range of media including drawing, photography, sculpture, installation and film. His works often respond to social and political events, from the current global refugee crisis to the complex social history of Australia; he is constantly critiquing notions of identity, patriotism and male rites of passage.

Quilty is a past winner of the Archibald Prize for portraiture, the National Self-portrait prize, and the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize. This rich and comprehensive collection of his work from the past two decades is accompanied by essays from Lisa Slade and Justin Paton.

Still life after the virus

Ben Quilty with the NSW Department of Education

Ben Quilty 2020

Ben Quilty talking about his latest painting, 2020.
Filmed in Ben Quilty's studio by Stella Sciberras, May 2020.

The Table

Fish River

Peanut Eater

Masturbator

Trouble

Not funny

Craig Reucassel visits Ben Quilty in the studio 2020

150 Years - Tolarno

Ben Quilty, 150 Year, Rorschach , 2019

The Difficulty

Forward from Quilty

On the evidence of this retrospective of paintings, the same nightmares that possessed Hieronymus Bosch and Francisco Goya seem at some point to also have possessed Ben Quilty. Why this is I cannot say. For the most part he seems a gentle man inclined to folly and passion, not infrequently at the same time. He is someone for whom such nightmares appear without precedent. I donʼt always recognise the man I know in the work I see. And perhaps that is one measure of his enigmatic achievement. 

His very name is contradictory. Ben – noun; name; meaning: masculine, hard, direct, biblical, Old Testament, prophet, reliable, obvious. Quilty – Quilty? Presumably as in the quality or nature of a quilt. Adjective: as in heʼs a bit quilty; a quilty git (OME?). Meaning – difficult to say, really. Mysterious, ill-defined. Possibly feminine, soft, quirky, comforting. Also lofty. Dead ducks. A sheet short. Inclined to dangerous colouring. Loose of the covers. Unpredictable.

Ben Quilty was born into an upper middle-class Sydney family in 1973. He attended a Catholic boys school where, a dutiful child, at the end of his first term in Grade 7 he topped his religious studies class. His teacher, a brother of the order that ran the school, summoned the young student to an office where the brother congratulated him, and then gave him the strap. 

From that day Quilty kept a diary recording each time he was strapped. Through the rest of Grade 7 the same brother strapped him fifty times. With each strike of the strap an inexplicable void opened up further and larger in front of the child and that, Ben Quilty replies to my question ʼWhen did you decide to be a painter?ʼ, is when he became an artist.

Not decided. Not chose. Became.

The dutiful child morphed into a wayward young man who after finishing a fine arts degree worked as a builderʼs labourer for four years, living recklessly and carelessly. He went back to university to study an eclectic degree composed of feminist theory and digital studies. By the end of the course he had a job as a TV news editor at Channel 7, where he worked for the next five years. 

One of his tasks was to log uncut foreign news feeds which frequently included graphic footage of wars, natural disasters, murders and terrorist attacks that would never screen. One day he watched as a suicide bomber in Israel lay in a pool of his own blood and intestines, writhing in agony after his detonator had gone off, blowing apart his torso but failing to ignite the explosives packed around his body. 

From a distance, soldiers send in a robot. The robot, once close to the wounded man, extends a mechanical arm. And then with great force the arm is slammed up and down on the suicide bomberʼs body, an iron fist pounding the dying man in an attempt to detonate the explosives.

During his time as an editor Quilty returned to painting, winning the Whiteley Scholarship with ten paintings, four of which were Basquiat-influenced takes on his work as a news editor, one inspired by the robot pounding the dying terrorist, and five were of Holden Toranas. If the Torana paintings are far more realised and accomplished, the robot painting is far more revealing. It is as if the strap is falling once more, and in his first attempts to describe it, the wayward young man began his career as a painter.

But it was with the Torana paintings that Quilty found at once his audience and his style. Some would suggest also his subject – and so Quilty himself says, seeing the paintings as an exploration of masculinity, of male initiations. And all that is true. But Quilty also has a great passion for cars. He loves cars. Ben Quilty may be said to contain multitudes. And one of them is a rev-head.

For the purposes of art babble he stands outside of his subject, describing it at a distance. And he genuinely means it. But my suspicion is that what he is finally painting with the Toranas, with everything, is himself. With the Toranas he discovered his backyard and began painting it with the shock of recognition and a delight of flow that quickly won him commercial success.

And this is the paradox of Ben Quilty. His paintings are about what he says they are about, but they are also about him, which frequently has nothing to do with anything he says. It is not that he is insincere. It is, I suspect, that he is unknown to himself.

Even when he seeks to bend his art to his anger, his art mostly lightly skips away in the manner of his Captain James Cook. Cook has long been too much of a symbol to make for anything other than bad art – formerly as national hero, himself or latterly as national villain. Cook may be many things, but in my wildest visions I never saw him as a Georgian dandy appearing to do a jig. And in that single image which was, I know, intended to attack the hoary old myths, Quilty instead simply painted a man. Which is perhaps the most radical idea of all: what if Captain Cook was simply one of us? A dandy who was not a conqueror but a dancer revelling in the light of our world?

Perhaps in the end it is more self-portrait than Jʼaccuse. Or thatʼs how Iʼd like to think of Ben Quilty: a man who takes an almost childish joy in his own world, dancing in the light as it catches the sculpted ruts and ridges of his works.

In any case, the early popularity his Torana and then budgerigar paintings enjoyed precluded for a time a more serious critical recognition on the presumed grounds that success and talent were exclusive ideas, a long sneer that is sometimes still distantly heard. Perhaps the work seemed too easy, perhaps it was for some too fully formed too early – the confidence of subject choice, the flourish of the brushwork not so unlike the man, presenting as roughly hewn but with a delicacy of line and elegance of composition. At the beginning he was an indigestible contradiction for an Australian art elite that liked its artists arty.

In 2011 this began to change when he achieved national prominence on winning the Archibald Prize for his portrait of fellow artist Margaret Olley. The painting was light, lyrical, joyfully evocative of an idea of art and artists. An aged woman was shown not as a figure of pity or as a victim of time, but as someone whose beauty was hard won from experience. Powerfully composed on a large near-square canvas, aged face rendered in titanium white with russet streaks, it was a supremely confident work, with a now characteristic sculptural weight balanced by the lightness of colour and openness of image, a strength freighted with tenderness.

The following year there came the remarkable series of paintings of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, the result of Quiltyʼs work as a war artist. These were impossible to dismiss or diminish. The passing of time, the sorry revelations of war crimes, have only added to the power of these astonishing portraits. They possessed the visceral humanity of Lucian Freudʼs examinations of the body coupled to the grotesquerie of Francis Bacon. But it was the terrible sense of shared pain, of souls in torment, a tenderness close to complicity, that made these paintings immediately resonate with an Australia grappling with its twenty-first-century reality: a supplier of Janissaries for the endless wars of America, a nation ill at ease with its crimes against refugees.

Six months after Afghanistan, Quilty visited the convicted drug smuggler, Myuran Sukumaran, one of the Bali Nine, in Denpasarʼs Kerobokan prison. A friendship arose as over the next two years Quilty taught Sukumaran to paint. When the execution of Sukumaran and Andrew Chan appeared imminent, Quilty, who had previously spoken out about the plight of returned diggers, became both the principal organiser and public face of an Australian campaign to save their lives. The Indonesian government prevailed in their determination, but Quiltyʼs campaign had a major impact on Australian opinion about capital punishment.

In the aftermath of the execution of his friends, Quilty made no images of this part of his life, but he had inadvertently redefined himself as something new in Australian art: the activist-artist. If there are comparable figures in the history of Australian art, I am unaware of them. In the last few years, following a trip to refugee camps in Lebanon, Greece and Serbia, he has become increasingly outspoken on the issue of refugees. Several of his recent individual and group exhibitions have featured his work on this subject, both installations and paintings, and he has also made a remarkable book of drawings, Home, by Syrian refugee children.

But an activist-artist was, and remains, a dangerous thing to be. History shows that an overtly political stance sustained over years can frequently lead to a decline in public respect for the artist as artist,  while – if the art becomes handmaiden of the cause – the work risks becoming more polemic than art. 

We have entered an age in which, for the first time since the 1930s, all art is political –or, at least, that is the wisdom of the moment. Ben Quiltyʼs art occupies a strange place in such a world: at once riding its currents, but also strangely separate from them. He may be saved from being a woke artist by art, and from the increasingly hermetic world of art by his various passions for the world. Because his work never neatly reduces to causes in the way he may even wish. He is too good an artist to allow the woke-man, the activist, the campaigner to determine what it is that he paints.

The great paradox of his work is that though it often involves activist stances, it manages to escape the limitations of politics. His painting, High tide mark (2016, pp. 22, 270), exemplifies the compelling dualism of his work. The subject is a life jacket found on the shore of Lesbos, abandoned by a refugee who has made the dreadful journey from Turkey to Europe across the fatal Aegean Sea. I remember clearly when he and I clambered down a steep bank on that island to where thousands of identical orange life jackets rimmed the stony coast bright orange. Lifting one, it felt strange. With a sharp rock I began tearing it apart to discover a soggy foam of the type used in packaging. The life jacket was a fake. In the way of our times it was an alternative fact, a death jacket. That evening we met a young Syrian woman whose three-year-old son had drowned the night before when their boat sank attempting the crossing.

The reproduction in this book does no justice to the sheer intensity of Quiltyʼs painting of the life jacket. All of Quiltyʼs gifts are here fully to the fore. His cunning in composition has the life jacket floating in space like a balloon, two ties falling to the bottom of the canvas suggesting it is tethered to some greater unseen reality below. Absent from the picture – as they are absent from the reportage of their crisis, as they are absent from our society – is the refugee who wore the life jacket, a subject unable to even be a subject. The great Australian figurative artist whose most celebrated works are portraits is here working without a human figure to tell the most human of stories.

The paint is applied with an almost Auerbachian fervour that somehow remains under just enough control to give the sense of a painting more sculpted than painted: thick, wild, angry forms of tangerine, yellow and black set against an aubergine background evocative of smoke, desolation, destruction. In the limited palette of this picture his talent as a colourist is on full display, the restraint balancing a fury of meaning. The rush of emotion captured in the rush of paint that appears to have been dragged down and across the canvas in search of a human form that is not there; a vivacity and energy of image that suggests the same in the making; an accuracy of line and form subjugated to a greater purpose, the wild, almost angry marking suggesting some fundamental error or flaw in the world of concrete things. If the subject is tortured and torturous, the execution is lithe and alive, animated by a great and still powerfully present energy.

It is a strange thing to realise that a still life of a life jacket can reduce you to tears. But such was my experience looking at this terrible painting of our times.

And so Quilty continues, an anomaly, his own Rorschach: an insider who sits outside; an everyman who, on closer examination, is typical of nothing save himself; whose work suggests torment and who has been associated with issues of great pain, yet is not a tormented figure; whose art is characterised not by a heavy morbidity but an ease and felicity, a vitality that has seen figurative painting remain important in Australia in a period when it was dismissed as washed-up and conservative while conceptual and Instagrammable installation art had become de rigueur; an artist who could achieve a level of public resonance and recognition unknown to most of his peers whose provocations remain the concerns of a restricted coterie. 

In an era when art was becoming ever more rarefied, as prices rose to stratospheric levels, and art and inequality seemed increasingly to complement each other, Quilty, without compromising his work, kept reminding Australians that art can have a moral dimension, that art does also deal with the world they live in, and, finally, that art matters. That he did this without compromising his work is no small achievement.

In the process, the successful painter has become arguably the best-known artist in Australia. His fate may prove wretched. He may become that thing he most despises, the grand old man of Australian painting, and be despised in his own turn. But I somehow doubt it. I have a suspicion that the example of both his life and work will outlive him. I hope so. For in the best of his paintings it is possible to sense some fundamental doubt assuaged by love, and glimpse the terror of a final emptiness fuelling a ferocity of passion.

The great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges said the riddle to which the answer is ‘knifeʼ will never mention the word knife. It may be that Ben Quilty is not finally a political painter as he is sometimes portrayed and as he sometimes presents himself, but that he is, finally, a religious painter, but one of a twenty-first-century bent, not expressing a faith, but desperately searching for one in the terrifying void that opens up the moment after the strap hits.

Art is Our Weapon

I call Ben ʼbrother from another motherʼ, heʼs a kindred spirit, for sure. He and I both believe in the power of art, that art can change peopleʼs lives, that it can even change the world. For us, art is our weapon.

Being an artist based in a remote community, you can feel pretty isolated. But Iʼve always been hungry for ideas and stories and wanted to know what other artists were doing, and why they were doing it. I knew and admired Benʼs work before weʼd ever met – heʼs a serious painter, heʼs not mucking around, and he won the Archibald! When Ben and I first connected it helped me to realise that my painting was opening up doors for me, and connecting me with a bigger world out there. Weʼre friends who came together through art, through sharing, teaching and learning and story-telling. Ben has really supported me and encouraged me to plan and work on projects that are keeping me and other young artists from the APY Lands connected to that big world out there.

When I think about my relationship with Ben I think about my great-grandfather Albert Namatjira and the important friendship that he had with a man named Rex Batterbee. An Arrernte man and a non-Indigenous bloke who were brought together by art. Albert and Rex shared their ideas about life, about country and about painting. Art crosses boundaries, it brings people together. Art has brought Ben out to the desert, and itʼs taken me to the city. Like I said, art can change peopleʼs lives and we hope it can change the world too.

Painting the Tangle

1.

Something terrible is happening in the Transit Room of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. There against the back wall, in a painting too tall for the racks. A tearing, a wrenching, a breaking of bones, a sense of things upturned and falling. A mouth with one bent vampire fang and an eye that sees more than it asked for, embedded in a spill of forms that might be a boneyard or midden. Every form slides, writhes and morphs into its neighbour, whose new identity violently denies what it seemed to be moments previously. Dirty orange, like rain-slicked clay, shapes one side of the picture, while the other side is defined by black with a night-time landscape inside it. Down the centre of the scene there seems to fall a figure, whose pale body terminates in a clatter of limbs and branches. Meanwhile, in the architecture of the pictureʼs upper reaches, a sign of the times is hiding: the year of its making, 2017, constructed in blocky numerals. What is happening? Where on earth are we? Whose headful of trouble are we seeing? 

‘Real styleʼ, said the German-British painter Frank Auerbach, is ʼhow one behaves in a crisisʼ, and Ben Quiltyʼs The Last Supper 2017 (2017, p. 297) is by that measure a critical painting. A fast-brushed immediacy has always characterised Quiltyʼs art. But this painting, a one-work state of emergency, also marks how much has changed. Quilty entered the second decade of the twenty-first century as a prize-winning portraitist and fascinated examiner of Australian manhood, rendering emblems of mortality, masculinity and settler history in ambivalent but delectably thick strokes. He will exit the decade, if The Last Supper 2017 is anything to go by, as a new master of the painterly-political grotesque – a painter of conflict, turbulence, knots, double binds, dark laughter and awkward resistance. Those seven years do not disclose a patient and cautious refinement – the artist tuning and re-tuning his style at a pace that wonʼt unsettle his audience. It is rather as if, sometime in the recent past, some strange new energy took hold of the practice, as if the paintings – not just their subjects, but their brushwork and surfaces – were invaded or infected.

2.

When a crisis or infection occurs, we track back looking for its causes, and the hunt for this moment in Quiltyʼs art takes us to 2012. Quilty at this time had just emerged from a campaign of the utmost seriousness, as a war artist stationed with the Australian Defence Force in the bare-boned landscapes of Afghanistan. Feeling that the photos heʼd amassed were inadequate to the experience, Quilty invited returned soldiers to his Southern Highlands studio to take part in charged and intimate life-modelling sessions (Iʼm indebted to Laura Webster for her account of these paintings). No longer limited by the flatness or souvenir quality of the photographic image, Quilty probed, nudged and worried through paint at the bodies and temperaments of his subjects, his broken touch an analogue for the challenges of trying to know another being. Some of the images just gutter out, like a conversation veering suddenly into silence. Others are interrupted by dark zones that might be bullet holes, blanked memories or violent redactions. The strongest of the pictures look as if the painter Chaïm Soutine has visited the barracks, twisting and pinning the soldiersʼ naked bodies like carcasses within the confines of the canvas. 

Yet even as these sombre paintings went on public view, a strange and liberating laughter could be heard rising from the studio, as Quilty began to hatch a series of gleefully monstrous portraits. Family members undergo the treatment, as do fellow painters: devil horns sprout from Guy Maestriʼs head (Guido  nose and ear, 2012, p. 199), while David Griggs (Griggs, 2012, p. 161) looks like a pit bull deciding whether to bite. The worst of these indignities are, however, visited on the artist himself. Quiltyʼs eyes bug out, his beard balloons, a fat tongue lolls from his mouth. The culture hero fresh back from war becomes a fool, a headcase, a galoot. Tipping the portraits fully into the ridiculous is the Pinocchio-on-Prozac nose, which worms its way through the pictures like a combined phallus, schnozz and painting finger. Along with the darkly comedic treatment meted out to fellow artists, this liarʼs nose makes it clear that these are paintings about the powers of painters – Quilty expressing his doubts about their ability to ʼkeep their headsʼ in a stricken and war-torn world. Quilty later revealed that he called on his children Ben and Olivia to direct these distortions; their choices, he has stated, were ʼas good as anyoneʼs when trying to describe the insanity of contemporary humansʼ.

So Quilty as we meet him around 2013 seems to stand in two places at once. On one hand, there is the artist we see in Self-portrait, after Afghanistan (2012, p. 147) – a gaunt figure projecting his blazing conviction about artʼs power as witness and eye-opener. On the other hand, there is Quilty the fool and distorter – the artist pulling faces at himself and the pieties of his medium in a spirit of desperate comedy. It was easy to imagine, at the time, that Quilty would soon come back to ʼseriousnessʼ, setting aside the anguished fooling for more front-line human engagement. But what we see in the years that follow is a more interesting and complicated development, which pushes back at the idea that one needs to be straight-faced and level-headed to be serious. We need to remember here that, although Quilty is often aligned with the tradition of humanist figure painting that runs from Soutine up through Auerbach, he is equally drawn to the corrosive humour and self-mocking pathos of the German art-punk and absurdist Martin Kippenberger. And in Quiltyʼs paintings of the past five years, the humanist tangles with the absurdist, creating paintings that combine tragedy and comedy in a way that seems to say, ʼIf you donʼt laugh youʼll cry.ʼ These are his grotesques.

3.

Originating in the extravagant decorative style revived in Rome in the sixteenth century, the grotesque as it flows into contemporary art is not a fixed style so much as a wayward energy or impulse – a counter-tradition that emphasises, as Robert Storr has remarked, ʼthe bond that exists between incommensurable thingsʼ: horror and wonder, the monstrous and the familiar, the delightful and the disorienting. There are endless examples in contemporary art of the grotesque deployed for its own sake, by artists who invite us to do no more than enjoy the spectacle of mutating forms and colliding contraries. But what fascinates in Quiltyʼs grotesques is the social conscience seeking voice within them – the sense that their distortions flow from an attempt to comprehend distortions in the wider world. How does a painter reasonably respond to a world that often seems to lack reason? What kind of coherence should a painter offer when they see a world tearing itself apart?

These are questions that swirled for Quilty in his studio in 2014, as he reckoned in paint with the predicament of convicted drug smuggler Myuran Sukumaran. Since 2012 Quilty had been visiting Sukumaran in Baliʼs Kerobokan Prison, where the young Australian, now making paintings under Quiltyʼs mentorship, was awaiting death by firing squad. The huge Kuta Rorschach no. 2 (2014, pp. 52–3) may be Quiltyʼs best-known Bali painting: a tourist-resort landscape whose doubled silhouettes tempt us to discover ghosts in ʼparadiseʼ. But the self-portraits of 2014 are his fiercest reports on the situation. The yowling mouths, long noses and bulging skulls persist from 2013, but enlarged now to a ʼpublicʼ scale and pregnant with paint that looks overripe. The image of a lushly sinister island moves through many of these pictures – a physical landscape that is also a headspace, a place in the painterʼs mind. Its palms sprout from Quiltyʼs skull; its tropical colours ooze through him (Pacific self-portrait, 2014, pp. 51, 220–1). Often, he looks like a bearded castaway or dissolute, colour-drugged traveller. Or heʼs a monstrous, paint-sweating Caliban, stuck on the island of his own anxieties. Or weʼre confronted with a presence as strange yet inarguable as the one seen in The Goldilocks Zone (Banksia Man) (2015, p. 242), a visage that delivers foreboding without telling us why we are feeling it.

Kerobokan led Quilty to one of his central concerns: the plight of individual souls caught in large systems. Sitting and working with his condemned friend in the art studio Myuran had established, Quilty confronted personally the brutal fact of capital punishment  – an authority deciding it had the right to take this human life. Steady and measured in his public appeals for leniency and mercy, Quilty in his studio (working in sympathetic parallel with Myuran) vented a mounting sense of frustration and distress. What comes through with special force is a feeling of moral distortions made physical – of senselessness and warped ʼlogicʼgiven visceral form. When Quilty appears with his neck bent double and his head twisted backwards (Straight white male, self-portrait, 2014, p. 211), it no longer feels like a mischievous poke at the image of the artist, but a desperate attempt to see a world whose values are brutally inverted. The distortions might seem comical or merely provocative in another context. Here they graunch and hurt.

Bitter regret in the face of waste is the keynote of Self-portrait, the executioner (2015, pp. 54, 257), a work made the day after Myuran and his fellow convict Andrew Chan were shot on the ʼexecution islandʼ of Nusa Kambangan (the same island, we now realise, which haunts the earlier paintings). The title suggests survivorʼs guilt, as if Quilty is accusing himself of not trying harder. But it also suggests a perverse act of imaginative identification: Quilty seeking to comprehend loss by seeing through the enemyʼs eyes. And since this is a painting, not a declaration, Quilty gets to have it both ways; his distinctive way with smeared and pushed paint keeps both possibilities jostling. The longer one looks, the more the face seems torn by conflicting feelings. Itʼs Quilty sizing us up sidewise; we know the beard and features. But the liarʼs nose, first seen in 2013, registers caustically rather than comically now. A second nose on the back of his head makes him two-faced – a literal Janus – while Quiltyʼs rendering of his own forehead reveals the skull under his skin. Outlining the entire head is a vestigial map of Australia, and what rivets at the top of this continent is the vortex of Quiltyʼs eye – a gyre or deep socket of paint that seems to say (to Myuranʼs executioners and to us), I saw him and I see you.  

4.

The idea that paintings can look back at and respond to their makers has always been important for Quilty. Just as novelists pursue that moment when their characters assume an independent reality, so Quilty likes to chase that moment when his forms begin to push back, taking on a momentum and character that tests and surprises their creator. Since art school his prime model for this kind of searching has been the archaeological expressionist Frank Auerbach, who has spoken of his desire to make a painting ʼthat remains in the mind like a new species of living thingʼ. Quilty has also taken advice, so to speak, from the great excavator of images Philip Guston, who spoke of his paintings as trembling beings coaxed to life from ʼcoloured mudʼ and approached with trepidation the next day.

This desire to make painting ʼliveʼ has taken on a new intensity in Quiltyʼs art recently, prompted in part by encounters and collaborations with painters of his own generation. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales in late 2016 Quilty encountered the American painter Dana Schutzʼs work Breastfeeding (2015), which visualises the experience of nursing a child as a funny-monstrous eruption of eyes and limbs. At the same time, Quilty was engaging closely with the art and artists of the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in north-western South Australia, and clearly thinking, in the work Malpa Kutjara. Nganampa Tjukurpa Palurmpa Kulintja (2017, pp. 42–3) made with the sisters Tjungkara Ken and Yaritji Young, about the way culturally loaded nodes and lines can be combined to make a surface pulse and thrive. Though well aware of the real and symbolic distances between Schutz and the sisters, Quilty admires all three painters equally for the irrepressible vitality of their forms, which flow and press towards canvas edges that hold but in no way control them. With this energy alive in his mindʼs eye, Quilty began making his own thrillingly organic and ʼdiscoveredʼ paintings.

Prior to this, Quiltyʼs faces and figures occupied relatively conventional spaces: standing or sprawling in rooms and landscapes, or floated centrally on white grounds. But in 2017 figure and ground start antagonising each other as never before. The figures who once sat front and centre have decomposed into their surroundings (an eye over there, a foot down there, teeth in the other corner), while the brushwork around and behind them has thickened and grown invasive, nosing and wriggling through the forms and elbowing out to the edges. ʼBrushworkʼ, in fact, is an inadequate word for what happens in paintings like The disorder (2017, pp. 56, 288), as Quilty ploughs paint along in wet trails with a trowel, scoops and rakes it with a gloved hand, or wipes back into it with rags. He lands fat dabs and pulls the brush back, creating thick stipples and polyps. And he turns the paintings as he paints them, undoing what he builds as he builds it. Up close these works can seem to be made of nothing but conflict, as wayward tides of paint collide and rough ʼripsʼ of colour rise up. One feels that Quilty, while fully in charge, is also riding the wave of his medium, letting the thing he is making (as the sculptor Rebecca Warren once put it) ʼtell him what it wants to beʼ. The results feel less like portraits of people than organisms in their own right: paint-things that ripple and snarl with a self-devouring energy. And even as we revel in this energy, the question presses in: Where is it leading and what is it saying? 

5.

Quiltyʼs efforts as an activist continue in the mid-teens, notably with a trip in early 2016 to witness the Syrian refugee crisis unfolding in the tent cities of Lebanonʼs Beqaa Valley and the life jacket-strewn beaches of the Greek islands Lesbos and Chios. Out of this journey came several remarkable collaborative art projects, among them a sculptural installation with a Syrian dressmaker and a book of heartrendingly direct drawings by Syrian children. Seemingly ready to speak anywhere and any time about artʼs role as a conduit for compassion, Quilty also produced his series of twelve life jacket paintings in memory of individual refugees or asylum seekers who suicided, died from complications following suicide attempts, or (in the case of Iranian Reza Barati) were killed in Australia or its offshore detention centres. Offering life jackets as markers of death, it is a bitter memorial indeed.

Yet it is a mark of Quiltyʼs interest as an artist that his works do not all speak unanimously. They speak, as we all do, in constantly changing tones and intensities, and what compels me most in the recent paintings are the powerfully mixed feelings they contain: how restlessly, even as they speak their messages, they question artʼs power to speak. For the ways in which static objects such as paintings move us are highly unpredictable, and the ways in which those feelings then move us into action are more unpredictable still. An image takes hold and nudges a prejudice – or, then again, it doesnʼt. So much depends on who and where we are and what we bring to the conversation. The activist sees in quiet or contemplative art a terrible rejection of conscience. The quietist sees in the drive of the activist a betrayal of artʼs necessary independence. And the push and pull between these aspirations kicks up great confusion, as images are condemned for not being actions and actions are conflated with images. One can see why an artist might want to cut through the tangle and choose one position or the other. Quilty, however, has done something different – he has chosen to paint the tangle. 

Look at The election (p. 289), or Bipartisan (p. 295), or The truth (p. 291), or A bad year (p. 292), all from 2017. The titles tell us immediately that Quilty is thinking about ʼcurrent affairsʼ. And the beings held within these paintings are monsters, there is no question. Their power, however, derives from the fact that they could be ʼhimʼ or ʼusʼ as much as ʼthemʼ. Though forceful as visions of odious politicians or malice abroad in the world (ʼIt feels like thereʼs enough material in Parliament House for me to make work for the rest of my life,ʼ Quilty said in 2016), they can also be seen as images of the distress of victims or the powerless anger of the artist. The long, slithery brushstrokes that Quilty unfurls play a huge part in this, shaping spaces in which single organisms tie themselves in knots of frustration. The truth performs this self-sabotage in an especially needling way, with its vision of an abstracted head or skull that is somehow blinding or binding its own organs of sight. The election, meanwhile, is a forceful image of bad faith on the march, portraying a one-eyed ʼbody politicʼ that, in its abject comedy, is also oddly sympathetic. One could cite the Surrealistsʼ ʼexquisite corpseʼ drawings or Gilles Deleuzeʼs notion of ʼschizophrenic bodiesʼ, but as a child of the 1980s Iʼm reminded equally of Weird Wheels trading cards and the comic horrors of the Garbage Pail Kids, whose Meltinʼ Milton and Barfinʼ Barbara wouldnʼt look out of place among Quiltyʼs monsters. The tension between attraction and repulsion in these works is summed up well in A bad year, where what looks like paint pouring from a tube is also flame spewing from a flamethrower. 

6.

We close in now on the present tense of Quiltyʼs studio practice. Critical distance is arguably harder to achieve when approaching art so recent, but a sense of urgency and ʼbreaking newsʼ is essential to the effect of these works. Their turbulent surfaces and confronting scale amount to a form of ʼlive feedʼ – the artist rapidly responding to the same news weʼre hearing and sharing his thoughts in public. (Though Quilty guards his studio space and time as closely as any painter, his newly finished paintings and on-the-day discoveries do also live, through his Instagram and social media posts, in a very public present tense, with thousands of viewers often seeing and responding to works before they are seen on gallery walls.) ʼTime will tellʼ is a phrase sometimes uttered by observers as a kind of spoiler, a way of non-committally dampening the reception of new work by appealing to the judgement of posterity (as if ʼtimeʼ or ʼposterityʼ, those pompous arbiters, are any more trustworthy than the present). What holds me in Quiltyʼs new works, by contrast, is their go-for-broke, donʼt-look-back urgency – the painter painting, not to secure a room in the timeshare of art history, but to transmit his sense of what is happening. 

Quiltyʼs rapidest response to our ʼinteresting timesʼ is The Last Supper (2016, pp. 284–5). Completed in the dumbstruck days after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, the painting is a fine and feverish contribution to the tradition of ʼsavage indignationʼ that runs from Hogarth and Daumier through the Nixon drawings of Philip Guston to the exultant takedowns of American troublemaker Peter Saul. The ʼupper roomʼ of the biblical Last Supper story has become a kind of boardroom of the mind, where an evil executive convenes around a table on which something nasty has been served. The red form at the end of the table might be a pill or a nuclear button, while a Trumpian figure (note the gangrenous comb-over) thrusts in from the upper left. Even so, it would be wrong to call the work satirical. It belongs, rather, to a lineage of what we could term feral polemic, in which the satiristʼs fury and fascination overwhelm any single message and run away with the painting. One wonders if Quilty is admitting as much in the pictureʼs left foreground, where the assembled figures form a phantasmal face which may be the artistʼs own. This is a bad dream of what the bad dads do when theyʼre given the keys to the kingdom. The panic and despairing anger in it remind me of lines by New Zealand poet Ian Wedde: 

What is ʼthe power we needʼ? Is it ʼthe power of artʼ? Can artʼs modest powers resist or call to account powers of the uglier kind? These questions roil and thrash in Quiltyʼs Last Supper series, the outburst of works that comes in the wake of the post-election work just mentioned – a period during which, as Quilty remarked recently, he was ʼbetter at saying no to everything but the studioʼ. Quilty rummages deeply here in the basement and prop room of the grotesque, filling the series with a horror movieʼs worth of screams, squirms and disjecta membra. But the paintings also have a believable physicality which comes from somewhere else. Quilty set these paintings in motion as he did those from Afghanistan, by inviting real people into the studio and responding to their stories – whether it was his young studio assistant Liam sharing his fears about environmental collapse, or an elderly Spanish man, a long-serving model for Quilty, reflecting on his home countryʼs civil wars. What hits one first in the paintings is the chaos and calamity, but the human presences, though assailed and entangled, give the distortions gravity. ʼThe people who modelled talked to me about their own fears and then I added mineʼ, Quilty said, and the result is paintings of vulnerable bodies under siege – picture a life-class conducted mid-catastrophe.

It is the presence of one body in particular that gives this series its character. Each painting is a vivid map of the physical actions of Ben Quilty: trowelling, stippling, dragging, scooping, scraping back, building up. The abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning once remarked that 'If I stretch my arms next to the rest of myself and wonder where my fingers are – that is all the space I need as a painter'. The Last Suppers derive their power from the feeling that ʼthe space Quilty needsʼ is critically congested – that forms and figures are coming at him faster than he can transcribe them. The effect is palpable in A Fascination, the Last Supper (2017, p. 305), with its frantically scratched-at surface, and it crescendos in the very tall painting we met at the outset (The Last Supper 2017, p. 297), where bodies and fragments tumble towards us through a kind of mine-head or trapdoor. It looks, in fact, less like a last supper than a ragged last judgement – the tall rear wall of a chapel where the accumulated fears and hysterias of 2017 are coming down. And Quilty the painter, as we meet him in the brushwork, seems to clamber back up through the deluge, clawing and sliding in the surface like someone trying to climb a steep bank. 

We are a long way here from simple models of art as commentary, in which the clear-sighted artist identifies a problem and creates an artwork that ʼaddressesʼit. There is in the paintings no high ground or promontory from which we can take calm stock of what we see. These difficult, splintery, un-peaceful artworks thereby touch on a truth of our time, which is the difficulty of achieving clarity and purpose in a world where information overwhelms communication. The world ʼover thereʼ (in Bali, in Syria) is ours as it has never been before: on our devices, through our headphones, streaming 24/7 in high-resolution. Yet understanding how the ʼout thereʼ and ʼin hereʼ relate can seem harder rather than easier than ever. The difficulty is expressed well, for me, in the bottom-right corner of The Last Supper 2017, where a slew of black paint discloses a valley with dark figures marching towards mountains. One guesses that this is Syria or Afghanistan – a landscape of exile or difficulty. But the vision is sudden and ripped from context: What can we say it means?  It is, in capsule form, an expression of a much larger difficulty, which is how to come to grips as a painter (as a person) with problems that are too large or shadowy to properly see. And this question is compounded in turn by a larger moral tension. Quilty is doing what artists have often done in the face of imagined trouble, which is to picture the apocalypse as vividly as possible in the superstitious hope that the image will avert the actuality. Yet in picturing it, he participates vicariously in the destruction heʼs imagining. ʼAll poetsʼ, wrote Auden, ʼadore explosions, thunderstorms, tornadoes, conflagrations, ruins, scenes of spectacular carnage.ʼ Painters also draw perverse energy from the fear and trembling they envision. 

7.

What, in the end, are these paintings? What are they attempting to achieve? My best but wholly provisional answer is that theyʼre experiments in the transfer of feeling. In a famous passage from 1972 addressing the limitations of formalist art criticism, Leo Steinberg said that the way to respond to a new artwork was not to give it a grade (good, bad, middling…) or rush it towards a category or position (abstract, figurative, conceptual…). Rather we should ʼfeel along with it as with a thing that is like no other.ʼ Not only is this useful advice for anyone approaching Quiltyʼs grotesques of the past five years, it also hints, I think, at the ways in which paintings can modestly change us. To ʼfeel alongʼ with something other than us is an act of modest risk and moral imagination, especially when the thing in question is alien, unsettling or disturbing. It also involves a momentary occupation of the space that the maker occupied. The painter who stood where we stand now is proffering a model of feeling – they are saying that, on this day and under these circumstances, this is how they wrangled the world. And as fellow ʼfeelersʼ approaching the work, we get to measure ourselves against that model. Is it useful? Can we see what they mean? And if not, is the difference illuminating? It is not about ʼlikingʼ or feeling liked back. It is about being compelled. Quilty compels through paintings that are, as we are, alive and conflicted.

The Colour of Quilty

Purple, or rather lilac, is Ben Quiltyʼs favourite colour. But Quiltyʼs lilac isnʼt quaint or even polite – itʼs a bruise two days in. Itʼs the colour of regret and the colour of contradiction. Brutal and beautiful. 

Lilac is the reason that Quilty went in search of the exact location on the Hawkesbury River from which Arthur Streeton had painted his late-nineteenth-century ʼpoem of light and heatʼ that he called The purple noon's transparent might (1896), an ode to Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. While Streeton wrote of an artistic intoxication – a state of creative euphoria heightened by the soaring summer temperatures, which resulted in his rendering of the Hawkesbury  Quilty and his mates sought out other forms of intoxication. 

In Torana no. 5 (2003, p. 26), violet paint caresses the curves of the artistʼs LJ Torana, the carʼs popped hood signalling vanity and virility  like an avian mating display. Looking towards the mauve-tinged Blue Mountains, from the ends of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Streeton and Quilty were both searching for subjects in their own backyards. Herein lies the ultimate aporia for these two sons of the soil  this country was never theirs. Streeton and, a century later, Quilty had both chosen the Hawkesbury as their muse and yet this muse was already rendered violet with violence. This river had already seen too much. Its lilac-hued serenity belied a dark history of relentless brutality. 

In 2010 Quilty made a body of work that distills the ambiguity and contradiction of belonging for non-Aboriginal Australians. Titled Inhabit, sixteen oil paintings are sequenced like cartoon cells, revealing Quiltyʼs early training as an animator and his experience as an editor in a commercial television newsroom in 2003 where he witnessed, among other events, the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad. Progressing through stages of abstraction and figuration, the devil emerges from a field of colour, reminiscent of the work of Francis Bacon, to become Captain James Cook (after Nathaniel Danceʼs portrait of Cook, commissioned by Joseph Banks). Cook atrophies into a skull that becomes a portrait of the artist before disappearing into a void, loosely inspired by the gestural marks of painter Ken Whisson. Through these transitions, magenta makes way for purple, which in turn becomes mauve before losing all colour, becoming ashen. Inhabit presages the brutal beauty of Quiltyʼs series of colossal canvases titled The Last Supper (2016–17). After sittings with life models, Quilty mobilised abstraction as a means of annulling the pain of what may be real. Figuration duels with abstraction. In both series of works, the painter becomes pugilist and each lashing of viscous colour deals the body of the canvas a visceral blow. Inhabiting the space created by Inhabit's paintings and the gaze of their subjects is a large birdcage sculpture. Fabricated from steel and bronze, it is based on a cage made for Banksʼ use in the antipodes during his intrepid natural history expeditions. Its Baroque styling is wrought into cast myna bird skulls and blackberry branches – each alluding to fellow invasive species, voracious colonisers of their habitats.

After being sent to Afghanistan as an official war artist in October 2011, Quilty could not help but view the landscape through the lens of his own experience of place. A few months after his return, he found a framed reproduction of Streetonʼs Hawkesbury River (1896), a sister painting to The purple noon's transparent might, gently discoloured after decades of hanging in a school corridor. In an act of defacement, Quilty made the work his own by scrawling the word ʼAfghanistanʼ across Streetonʼs mountains after extending their vertical presence. The summer haze of the Great Dividing Range immediately transfers to the Hindu Kush mountain range of Afghanistan. Quiltyʼs act of scarification on the rugged, purple-tinged mountains paralleled the militaryʼs use of the hills for target practice and hints at the Talibanʼs destruction in Bamiyan of fifth-century statues of Buddha, the worldʼs tallest. In his journal, kept during his time in Afghanistan, Quilty incants:

Outside through the layers of barbed wire fields weave away towards the towering mountains of rock that surround us, and elsewhere, the ancient drum beat of holy war can echo off the mountains.

Titling the work Transparent might, after Afghanistan (2011, p. 31), Quilty collapses the years between art-school earnestness and his experience in Afghanistan as a national war artist. (Streeton too served as an official war artist.) Streetonʼs presence is felt too in Kandahar, an oil painting that seems to have appeared before Quilty  like a vision or apparition  while he was in Afghanistan. Punctuating his written diary entries, in which Quilty describes ʼthe chaos of silenceʼ, is a preliminary sketch for the final work, featuring a maelstrom of chaos and death hovering over a landscape skirted by a violet-hued mountain range. Worked up later in paint, Quiltyʼs vortex of quiet dark violence is at once human and machinic, ancient and utterly imminent.

Quiltyʼs time in Afghanistan was both defining and debilitating for him as an artist. His previous inquiries into mateship and mortality were recast into a more critical inquiry into self and survival. In a suite of works made in the two years after his return, sitter after sitter made the pilgrimage for restoration to Quiltyʼs studio in Robertson in the New South Wales Southern Highlands. These harrowing insights into the mind of war and its aftermath are captured in a series of intimate portraits, including Captain Kate Porter, after Afghanistan (2012, pp. 32, 135). Quiltyʼs first meeting with Porter was in Tarin Kot, in Uruzgan Province in Central Afghanistan, where he drew her with ink on paper. In the following year, Porter was painted naked against a raked violet ground marked with corrugations, as though pummelled or driven over repeatedly. She covers her nakedness and peers with heavy vulnerability from within the paintingʼs inner gloom. While Porterʼs fragility is laid bare, it is Quiltyʼs anxiety that is the paintingʼs true subject. 

The intersection between public narrative and personal account lies at the heart of Quiltyʼs practice. For him, the post-traumatic stress experienced by those in the front line ricochets like colonisation, for both First Australians and their invaders. The hovering tumour of trauma and violence that lies at the heart of Kandahar, both painting and place, is replayed in Quiltyʼs monumental and multipanelled Rorschach paintings, in which the smashed-together canvases congeal paint at their central point of ʼcontactʼ. 

Inspired by Hermann Rorschachʼs eponymous ink blots, introduced in the early twentieth century as a tool for psychological testing, this way of working represents a perilous strategy as a painting technique, with Quilty loading the canvas with impasto oil paint only to destroy the surface by pressing a second unpainted canvas directly onto the first. The swathes of impasto, for which he is celebrated, are obliterated in the act of doubling. Chance intervenes in creating accidents and abstractions that invite us to reflect on our own perceptions, desires and experiences. 

Quilty returns time and time again to the Rorschach process, a tool created to divine delusion and trauma. In Rorschach after von Guérard  (2009, pp. 94–5), Evening Shadows, Rorschach after Johnstone (2011, pp. 118–9) and Fairy Bower Rorschach (2012, pp. 144–5), the trauma of contact is rendered through the visceral impact of one canvas on another, an impact that leaves a biomorphic stain in the centre of the painting. The latter work was made after Quilty discovered the violent history of an idyllic picnic spot on Gundungarra country not far from his home, where in 1834 Aboriginal women and children were reputedly massacred. Fairy Bower Rorschach performs the double act of delusion whereby, at face value, a picturesque landscape, complete with waterfall, is presented but a darker story is suggested by the paintingʼs central grotto. Rather than concealing frontier violence, this anthropomorphised idyll threatens to envelop us. By engaging with Australiaʼs most nationalising and colonising genre  that of landscape – Quilty transforms the genre into a new typology, one more closely aligned with history painting.

In 2016 Quilty made his first visit of many to the community of Amata, in the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in north-western South Australia. Time spent on Country has endeared Aṉangu to Quilty, who in turn has become a powerful advocate of Aboriginal art and artists. Elder Nyunmiti Burton describes the affinity between Aṉangu and Quilty:

Aṉangu paintings are powerful because of the strong stories that are told. Benʼs work is strong for the same reason. With his painting he tells stories that people need to know about and think about... The heartbreaking stories about the massacres of Aboriginal people, this is a history that all Australians need to know and understand. These stories and paintings are very important. They can change the world, by being told. This is why Aṉangu make paintings too. 

In late 2017 Aṉangu elder Frank Young shared with Quilty a harrowing account of colonial violence, wherein an important water source had been defiled by a white dingo scalper. Aṉangu retribution  the spearing of the violator  led to a massacre of Aboriginal men and to the intergenerational burden of violence and dispossession. Heavy with the responsibility of this story, Quilty made Irin Irinji (2018, pp. 36–7), a twelve-panelled Rorschach that depicts the site and materialises its trauma. Mauve, violet, lilac, lavender and purple hues dominate the palette. Where paint is absent, ghost gums appear, haunting the landscape but also remaking themselves as human bodies  upturned pallid limbs reaching skywards. Made while Quilty was recovering from an injury, the painting was created while laid flat with the artist working from all sides, turning the canvas just as his desert colleagues do. 

The colour of grief ­­­ purple and its familiars  works its way time and again into Quiltyʼs paintings. For thousands of years, long before synthetic paints, purple was tinted with sorrow and destruction. The imperial purple favoured in antiquity by the affluent and influential, the great and gloried from Rome to Constantinople, required the killing of a quarter of a million murex shellfish to produce a mere ounce of dye  it was described as the tears of the sea snail. Even in its very colours, its shades of bruised beauty, Quiltyʼs latest Rorschach Irin Irinji summons the contradiction of creation and destruction, the same aporia that is our lived experience of this country.

Ben Quilty: Painting the Shadows

A fascinating exploration of the creative process, Quilty - Painting the Shadows, follows one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists as he completes one of his most challenging art works. The film documents the most recent shift in Quilty’s art which is a growing interest in our national history and the dark corners of our past. With the permission of the Gamilaraay Elders, he travels to Myall Creek in Northern NSW. On the afternoon of Sunday 10 June, 1838, 12 stockmen brutally slaughtered a group of 28 Aboriginal men, women and children who were camped peacefully at the station of Myall Creek.

For more information regarding this film or to order the DVD visit: artbrief.com.au