What drives Ben Quilty? It all gets back to beauty, says the artist from his studio in Mittagong in the New South Wales Southern Highlands, even when the subjects of his paintings have been the psychological landscapes of personal trauma. ‘All of the things that humans I respect strive for somehow involve ideas of beauty,’ Quilty shares on the eve of a survey spanning his career.
Quilty started out recording machismo and male rites of passage, reflective of his teenage years at Kenthurst, 39 kilometres south-west of Sydney, but in the past decade has broadened his palette to painting Australian soldiers wracked with post-traumatic stress from war engagement in the Middle East, through drug smuggler Myuran Sukumaran facing the death penalty, and more recently the refugees who have made the perilous sea journey from Turkey to Lesbos.
There will be about 60 works in the survey, opening at the Art Gallery of South Australia, and later in the year at the Queensland Art Gallery and then the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Curator Lisa Slade says the work of national identity or identity per se is the arc of Quilty’s interest and influence that everything he does comes back to this idea of who we are.
‘I think human loss, human suffering, human bravery is the subject of Ben’s work,’ says Slade, noting that even with specificity like the portraits Quilty painted of traumatised soldiers, ‘he is never not painting himself’.
‘I had been looking for broader ways to talk about the human condition and the way humans are,’ says Quilty, agreeing that his time in Afghanistan as an Australian War Memorial artist in 2011 was a turning point, ‘rather than notions of patriotism and national identity, which are really associated with that young, male culture that I was a part of. I just grew out of it.
‘I’m not less interested in those things, but I feel it’s important I tell my story, that I respond to the world through my own eyes, and I don’t want to keep on harping on about the 19-year-old Ben. I now have children, so I have a very different responsibility. Having children, or even just growing older, makes you aware of the legacy you leave – collectively, not just myself; the planet we leave behind, for my children and their children.’
Quilty and his screenwriter wife Kylie Needham are parents to Joe, 12 and Olivia, 10. When Joe was an infant, his father depicted him crying while transformed into a hamburger.
‘The Joe Burger is a commentary on ideas of mass consumption and a critique of capitalism, but all done with a sense of humour,’ says Quilty. ‘I think the paintings work best with, in the back of your mind, the endlessness of the universe, and the fact that rats and cockroaches will survive. We might destroy everything we’ve created and all the beauty we’ve become aware of, but we won’t destroy the planet.’
Slade says early signature Quilty works like the crying baby hamburger and the Holden LJ Torana will all be in the show. ‘But the last 10 years is really the focus,’ she says. ‘This idea of Ben as a participant and as an observer runs through the whole thing. The reason he has cut through as an artist is because he has the capacity to be in the moment, but also observing the moment.’
Steve Dow is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer across the visual arts, theatre, film
Art Gallery of South Australia
2 March to 2 June, 2019
Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art
29 June to 13 October, 2019
Art Gallery of New South Wales
9 November, 2019 to 2 February 2020