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.