Painting the Tangle

Justin Paton, Quilty


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.


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.


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.  


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? 


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. 


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. 


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.

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