Ben Quilty exhibition: portrait of the artist as a thinking man

Sasha Grishin, The Sydney Morning Herald

Ben Quilty: Trigger happy
ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Kingsley Street, Acton.
Until December 15.

The 40-year-old Ben Quilty has become hot property in the Australian art world.

An Archibald Prize (2011), several national touring shows, including his much acclaimed Afghanistan paintings, sell-out shows in commercial art galleries and participation in a spate of curated exhibitions in public galleries, plus residencies in Paris and Barcelona, all make Ben Quilty into one of the most coveted contemporary painters in Australia. He has even become a trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Are we suffering from over exposure to Quilty's work? Has the virtuosity in his thick paint application and his patented technique of Rorschach painted blobs become predictable and a spot hollow?

I approached this exhibition with a degree of trepidation having seen his first solo exhibition only 12 years ago and then following in quick succession his shows of Toranas and skulls. He has been omnipresent on the art scene, prolific, showy and seemingly effortlessly moving between painting, huge bronze sculptures, prints and drawings.

The Drill Hall show is a pleasant surprise, seductive in its freshness, bold, vibrant and visually exciting. The curator, Michael Desmond, has done a great job in avoiding the cliched pieces and those from which we suffer over exposure and has assembled a strong and coherent show.

For me the biggest surprise is the presentation of Ben Quilty not simply as a natural and spontaneous painter with a kneejerk response to that which surrounds him, but as a very deliberate, thinking artist questioning Australian history from a considered post-colonial perspective.

Two circumstances in his recent life, the move to Robertson in the Southern Highlands of NSW and parenthood, may have led him to reconsider his position somewhat and to work with more deliberate intent.

As you enter the exhibition you encounter the huge Jesus Rorschach, 2008 and Greer Rorschach No 6, 2008, both about 3 metres across, which establish presence through scale. The monumental heads are effective and a little unnerving, and may as the curator suggests point to paths and guides.

It is the main body of the exhibition, the one dealing with landscape, that is the real triumph of the exhibition. The 8 metre long Rorschach after von Guérard, 2009, revisits the iconic view of Mount Kosciusko, but now shown more as a mystical than a sublime experience, where the explorer is subsumed into the fabric of the landscape and the whole becomes a strange and primeval site for the creation of myth and landscape.

The surrounding paintings are of Aboriginal battle sites, formerly referred to as massacre sites, including Lead shot Rorschach, 2013 and Wilcannia Zombie Rorschach, 2013. While in each painting there is specific reference to sacrifice, with skulls and an interpretation of his son's drawing of a standing corpse, the strength of the paintings lies not so much in the figurative narrative, but the mood which they evoke.

Being painted out in the field, directly from the object, adds to the note of authenticity. The artist announces not that I have been here and this is what I saw, but I am here and this is what I feel.

The huge bronze decapitated head of Captain Cook, titled Cook after Baghdad, 2012, etchings and drawings, all stress something of the versatility, technical mastery and the probing intellect of Ben Quilty. He may be an artist in a hurry, but presently he is making some beautiful and considered work.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, November 9, 2013.

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