At 45, it is no longer a question of whether Ben Quilty is the next big thing in Australian art, but of how big will he get – a Storrier, a Whiteley or a Nolan?
Quilty is a large exhibition of monumental paintings, selected by the curator Lisa Slade, mainly from work made by the artist over the past six years. After its inaugural showing at the Art Gallery of South Australia, as part of the Adelaide Festival, it will tour to the state galleries in Brisbane and Sydney.
To call it a survey show may be a bit of a misnomer for apart from a couple of early Torana paintings – Quilty’s emblems of masculinity personified in a car – most of the show consists of huge slabs of paint. Some commemorate the artist’s service as an official war artist in Afghanistan, others his ultimately futile campaign to save the lives of Bali Nine pair Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. There are refugees and the life vests on Lesbos, Aboriginal massacre sites, Trump and the Last Supper as well as portraits of himself, his family and friends.
Missing are Quilty’s smaller and more intimate paintings, drawings and prints. Quilty is a remarkably prolific artist and the curatorial choice was made to focus on his more recent, “public manifesto” pieces. As the artist explained to me, “I left it completely up to the curator – the selection, the hang, everything”.
Quilty outlines the narrative of the exhibition,
My work is about working out how to live in this world, it’s about compassion and empathy but also anger and resistance. Through it I hope to push compassion to the front of national debate.
It is a very “noisy” exhibition, where the works scream at you from the walls, proclaiming the urgency, passion and raw emotion of the narrative content, as well as the energy and exuberance of the young artist wishing to demonstrate his mastery of a painter’s bag of tricks.
Thick sensuous slabs of oil paint, endless Rorschach blots and the juxtapositioning of negative and positive spaces are some of Quilty’s favourite formal strategies. There is a prevailing sameness of medium and technique that runs throughout this exhibition.
John Brack, arguably the finest painter Australia has produced, related to me the experience of visiting the Louvre in Paris and being overwhelmed by the great halls of masterpieces all screaming at the viewer, “look at me, I’m a genius”. Finally Brack took refuge with the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians and the silence and eternal validity of their work. The “en masse” emotional pitch of Quilty’s exhibition, after a while, loses its ability to shock.
Quilty ascribes to the philosophy that the artist is the conscience of society and it is up to the artist to take a stand and lead on issues that matter. In his case, these include the plight of refugees, global warming and the environment, the unfinished business of recognising Australia’s Aboriginal heritage and the bloodshed of the colonial period, and the mounting anxiety associated with living in the “post-truth” age.
Quilty’s Last Supper series of paintings had their origins in the unexpected victory of President Donald Trump in 2016. They are basically eschatological images dealing with a gathering of drunken, evil elders around a festive table set to mark the end of the world. While a grotesque image of a large man with a blonde wig may be discernible in some of the paintings, an attempt is made at universality, rather than specificity.
These are possibly some of the more abstracted images in the exhibition where contorted masses of flesh and bone writhe as if some sort of surrealist anatomical monstrosity.
As the series progresses chronologically, the early thematic literalness is progressively abandoned as increasingly Quilty seeks to create an image of universal anxiety. These are some of the more successful paintings by the artist to date.
Quilty is an artist who appears to be always in a hurry. Passion and urgency inherent in the subject matter, perhaps may require a more distilled and deliberate technical resolution to increase the effectiveness as paintings. It is difficult to doubt the artist’s sincerity and commitment to the causes he champions, but one can question the technical resolution of some of the pieces.
If 15 years ago, images of a backyard Torana could be painted with gusto in thick impasto as a measure for male testosterone levels, the abandoned orange life vests of 2016, washed up on the island of Lesbos and presented as emblems of human sacrifice could, perhaps, call for an alternative artistic strategy.
Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and Chaim Soutine could all empower an inanimate object with the profound power of a spiritual icon. In Quilty’s huge series of life vests, the materiality of the object is perfectly conveyed in paint, but it is left to the beholder to value add to the experience through their imagination.
Quilty is an interesting phenomenon in the Australian art scene, my hope is that he will not be eaten up by the Sydney art machine, as has been so frequently the case for artists in the past. The hope is that he will be allowed, and will allow himself, to explore and find his true potential as an artist.
Quilty, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide March 2 – June 2, touring to Queensland Art Gallery + Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane 29 Jun - 13 Oct 2019 and Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 9 Nov 2019 - 2 Feb 2020.