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.