Unfinished Business: The Art of Gordon Bennett

The art and legacy of Gordon Bennett questions established fields of knowledge and the politics of identity, opening up a rich and provocative dialogue; a conversation, inclusive of all, that remains unfinished.

 

I am Australian
I am Aboriginal
I am Human Being
I am Spiritual Being
I am Body
I am Spirit
I am
– Gordon Bennett, notebook sketch, 25 August 1990

Within this framework of reductionism, Gordon Bennett (1955-2014) explores historical and contemporary questions of shared and individual cultural identity. His emphatic conclusion of selfhood – ‘I am’ – is informed by his own sense of dual identity as an Australian of Aboriginal and Anglo-Celtic descent; further expressed in his artmaking which was used as a tool to resist and debate ingrained truths about Australia’s colonial past and its postcolonial present. This ongoing – and unfinished – conversation is brought to the fore in ‘Unfinished Business: The Art of Gordon Bennett’ at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, the first major survey of Bennett’s work since his passing in 2014.

‘Unfinished Business’ celebrates Bennett’s art and legacy, showcasing almost 200 artworks ranging from installation and sculptural assemblage to painting, drawing, video and ceramics: key series of works in depth such as his ‘Welt’ and ‘Mirror’ series of the early 1990s and abstract ‘Stripe’ paintings of the early to late 2000s; and a selection of Bennett’s most important works from his art school years in the late 1980s to his untimely death, alongside many never-before-seen paintings, installations and drawings. The latter, a significant focus of the exhibition, with more than 100 working and finished compositions that reflect the artist’s distinct visual language.

Gordon Bennett, Possession Island, 1991, oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas; two parts, 162 x 260cm (overall). © The Estate of Gordon Bennett. Purchased with funds from the Foundation for the Historic Houses Trust, Museum of Sydney Appeal, 2007. Collection: Museum of Sydney, Sydney Living Museums

Spanning Bennett’s artistic output, the exhibition showcases the artist’s use of a dot aesthetic inspired by the Papunya Tula art movement of the Australian Western Desert juxtaposed with abstract expressionism. Early imagery mesh in traditional mark-making and the spontaneous splatter of Pollockian paint, as seen in Possession Island (1991). Based on a 19th-century etching by Samuel Calvert, Possession Island depicts Captain Cook celebrating the inauguration of a nation while an Aboriginal man in European dress, untouched by the shower of paint, passes around drinks. Coloured red, yellow and black, the figure references the Aboriginal flag and loss of a culture or displacement.

Bennett’s oeuvre creates a visual discourse informed by theories of reproduction and appropriation, art history, historical and current events, the divided self and concepts of the Other (as seen in his ‘Mirror’ series). He often reframed the works of modernist Masters he admired, such as Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, Kazimir Malevich, Roy Lichtenstein and Piet Mondrian. By re-contextualising existing images, or by ‘quoting’ these works, Bennett challenges the viewer to question and see alternative perspectives and meaning, to re-define stereotypes and prejudices and ascertain the ‘truth’ of the past. In an intersection of Western and non-Western art history; Indigenous and non-Indigenous artforms and narratives, Bennett presents a link between a collective yet divided humanity; and offers the makings of a new, universal history.

Gordon Bennett, Notes to Basquiat (Self-portrait), 1999, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 101 x 101cm. © The Estate of Gordon Bennett. Collection: The Estate of Gordon Bennett

Bennett’s view of a shared cultural and lived-experiences led to his ‘Notes to Basquiat’ series (1998-2002), inspired by the work of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88). Basquiat was a Haitian-American artist with Puerto-Rican heritage, who grew up in the racially divided United States of the 1960s and 1970s and came to prominence in the USA in the 1980s with his impulsive and gestural graffiti-esque style and rap/hip-hop racial activism. Bennett’s works, like Basquiat’s, look beneath our skins. Coupled with the rhythmic beat of rap sampling text and totemic and biomorphic figureheads, they expose organ and bone in x-ray-like depictions of the body of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous subjects; revealing their inner suffering and that underneath, we are all the same, or at least, can relate.

Primarily, ‘Unfinished Business’ gives a new awareness of Bennett’s aims, ideals and objectives, offering insights that anchor on the serial nature of his practice;

‘I am trying to paint the one painting that will change the world, before which even the most narrow-minded and rabid racists will fall to their knees in profound awareness and spiritual openness, thus recognising their own stupidity… Of course, this is in itself stupid and I am a fool, but I think to myself, what have I got to lose by trying?’
– Gordon Bennett, notebook sketch, 16 December 1991 and 22 December 1991

Gallery of Modern Art
7 November, 2020 to 21 March, 2021
Queensland