BEN QUILTY IS standing outside his cavernous Alexandria studio looking at his beloved white 1972 LJ Torana. "Usually it sits in the studio, wasting a lot of space, and I rarely drive it," he says, stroking its roof. "But the paintings of the car are worth more than the car now. How can I ever sell the poor old car?"
Four years ago, the Torana and other cars were the stars of a series of vivid, thickly layered paintings that established Quilty's presence on the art scene. One, titled Elwood Torana No 7, earned him $30,000 when he won the Metro 5 Art Award in Melbourne in 2004. He sold all the car paintings and wishes he had kept one. But there are other reasons for keeping the car.
Quilty, 33, grew up in Kenthurst, in Sydney's north-west, where car hoon culture was a rite of passage and a symbol of self-worth for young men as they came of age. Apart from activities involving drinking, smoking "the wrong kind of cigarette" and blowing things up, Quilty hooned the streets with his mates in the Torana muscle-chariot.
"It was one of those kinds of cars that reeked of rebellion. It was loud and furious and not part of the culture of Paddington," he says. "You're cruising around at night with a joint hanging out of your mouth, trying to be cool, and you're also risking your life with other guys sitting inside the car."
Quilty's work has long been informed by such symbols of young male culture in Australia. His exhibition, Pride and Patriotism, at GrantPirrie Gallery in Redfern, a congregation of enormous, attention-grabbing oil and aerosol paintings of male heads and Rorschach-style images, charts male power and irresponsibility from infancy to maturity.
Lining the walls of Quilty's studio, the works are truculent, discomforting and compelling: a stern Captain James Cook staring disparagingly out of the frame; Quilty's baby son, Joe, with his face contorted from crying; Quilty's mate Lloydy looking half-dead after his buck's night. One self-portrait features the artist's semi-comatose, hungover face squinting listlessly at the viewer through half-closed eyes. Suspended on canvas, without bodies and with blank backgrounds, each expressive head has an unsettling, almost brutal influence on the viewer.
Quilty created them over the past year and says they are of people who have held positions of power or shirked responsibility.
"All my work has been recently about male culture, whether it's through a car or heavy metal or that excessive, young male period of your life that I'm hoping will end for me soon," he says, smiling.
"I think men do those things because it's like self-initiation. There's no initiation process for young men. When you turn 18 you skol a yard glass and you spew on yourself and then you're supposedly a male that's got something to give to society. It's just so far from how it should work. It's definitely informed my work; it's what I'm interested in because it's where I've been. It's what I've done."
Success has come quickly. When Quilty won the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship in 2002, Barry Pearce, the head curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of NSW, labelled him "the knight in shining armour" for the future of Australian painting. Quilty quit his job as a tape editor at Channel 7 and travelled to Paris with his partner, scriptwriter Kylie Needham, to live and work at the Cite Internationale Des Artes for three months. Three years later, when Brisbane gallery owner Jan Murphy took a collection of new works by Quilty to the 2006 Melbourne Art Fair, they sold on the first day at prices from $3300 to $15,000. Works in Pride and Patriotism range from $4000 to $17,000.
Since he sprang on the scene with his Whiteley scholarship landscape work, Quilty's star has burned so intensely, and his work's value has shot up so dramatically, he confesses it is often hard to take in.
"I'm actually more shocked now than back then," says Quilty, who has also worked as a builder's labourer, kitchen hand and inside the costume of the Wests Tigers mascot. "It's just amazing. I pinch myself that I'm doing exactly what I want to do, really what I want to do, not only in my painting. I'm trying to make statements that are exactly about what I want to make.
"And people buy it. People buy these really ugly heads of me. Seriously, I make myself look as drunk and off my face as I can and it's collectable."
Quilty does not consider himself a portraitist, though he is a regular Archibald finalist. His painting of Beryl Whiteley, the mother of the late Brett Whiteley and founder and patron of the travelling art scholarship, was selected in 2005; his striking diptych of fellow artist Adam Cullen, titled Cullen - Before And After and depicting him as a kind of Jekyll and Hyde character, became a finalist last year. The artist Margaret Olley, who had already snapped up one of Quilty's Torana paintings, bought the Cullen portrait and gave it to Newcastle Region Art Gallery.
This year he is the subject of two Archibald entries. One, a vulnerable-looking portrait by Cherry Hood, is on view in the current exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. Nicholas Harding's painting of Quilty cradling baby Joe in his arms is part of this year's Salon des Refuses exhibition.
For a man so galvanised by issues of aggression and masculinity, Quilty is surprisingly friendly, open and gentle in person. He has been described in the media as a heart-throb, an art darling and a wonder boy, yet continues to puzzle viewers of his work because his images feature fiendish human skulls with dangling cigarettes, menacing muscle cars, screaming infants, scowling British explorers or ugly-looking, drunken men.
When people ask him why he paints such pessimistic work, Quilty says his view of Australians preferring to ignore the less-than-rosy aspects of Australian history is confirmed. "I love my life, my family, friends and work, and I'm a very lucky person," he says. "But there are some really bad things happening. It seems to me that in Australia no one talks about them, and if you do you're branded as a pessimist. It's just ridiculous.
"The whole 'un-Australian' thing at the moment, that's just insane. I mean, Captain Cook shot the first Aboriginal he met - well, let's talk about that. What's un-Australian? What school do you ever learn Aboriginal in? You learn French and German but I've never heard of a school that teaches Aboriginal and that's the most un-Australian thing I can think of."
Quilty also finds it bizarre that the Union Jack, rather than a representation of Aboriginal people, remains on the Australian flag. "I'm happy to burn the flag. As long as it's got the Union Jack on it, I'll burn it. The Australian flag, as it is, speaks to me of oppression and invasion and it's so politically incorrect to say any of this stuff, but it's also so obvious."
The other great talking point surrounding Quilty's work is his exuberant application of paint. He likes to lay it on thick, using cake-decorating tools to massage the layers and colours before finishing most works in a matter of hours. A year ago, the Herald art critic John McDonald described Quilty as being "like a man who was once locked in a room for a year with a shovel, paint and canvas and told to prepare for an exhibition. Years later, he is still using the shovel, but with more dexterity than most artists with a brush."
Quilty says he is energised by his "almost violent" application of paint because it allows him to get images out of his head and on to the canvas quickly. "I guess, in some way, it mirrors the attitude of the young male as well," he says. "We used to go out and get into fights and drive like absolute maniacs and knock things down as we drove along and that application of paint represents those kinds of ideas in another way."
Quilty says he appreciates the continual interest in his slab-like layering of thick paint, and grins when recalling how visual art commentators always describe it as being "like f---ing ice-cream".
"People say how thick and free it is and gestural but the marks are put in the right spot," he says. "Even though it has that appearance of being slap-dash, the further back you get from the works the more realistic they become.
"I really like it when people move back and forth in front of the work. The skulls, the hamburgers, the heavy-metal images, even the Toranas, in some sense, up close are very beautiful. But as you get further back from them, they're either really confronting or just plain ugly."
Pride and Patriotism is showing at Grant Pirrie Gallery in Redfern until April 14.
Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, March 18, 2007.