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Ben Quilty’s talents on show at London’s Saatchi Gallery


Stylish Dinosaur
Feb 10, 2007
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Ben Quilty’s talents on show at London’s Saatchi Gallery
•From: The Australian
•May 24, 2014 12:00AM

IN the long, hot January days after he took out the top award at the inaugural Prudential Eye Awards in Singapore, Ben Quilty was filled with disquiet.

Speechless after beating 500 other nominated artists from across Asia, he collected $US50,000 and an invitation to be the subject of a prestigious solo exhibition at the internationally acclaimed Saatchi Gallery, London: the first Australian to be invited to do so.

However, he soon began to doubt the veracity of his achievement.

“It was just unbelievable. I honestly didn’t know what to say when they announced me as winner. I thought I might have a chance of winning the painting prize, but to go on and win the whole thing as well, it was insane. And to be presented the award by Nigel Hurst, director of the Saatchi Gallery and someone who I have looked up to, and admired for many years, it was just one of those moments you think: ‘Is this real?’ For days afterwards I continuously felt like emailing the gallery and saying: ‘Is Ben Quilty having a show with you?’, because it felt that unreal.”

Old mate and Art Gallery of South Australia director Nick Mitzevich offered some sage ­advice. “It was Nick who finally said to me, ‘Ben you are going to Saatchi. Forget everything else. Shut the studio door, and lock it, and start working.’ ”

Four months on from the award, a collaboration between Saatchi Gallery and Parallel Contemporary Art, a foundation that supports emerging Asian artists, Quilty took his friend’s advice. He is ready.

QUILTY emerges from his warehouse studio in NSW’s southern highlands. Outside it is a nippy autumn day, and nature is bedding down for winter. But inside the turpentine-tinged smell of the painter’s paraphernalia and the soulful music of Missy Higgins warm the space. Quilty is a fan. He made a portrait of the diminutive singer two days earlier when she sat for him. It hangs, androgynous and waiflike, soon to be auctioned off for a music charity’s fundraiser.

As he talks intently about his approaching Saatchi exhibition, the huge activity of the past year, and what the future may hold, Quilty strokes the head of his dog Betsy. He is, he agrees, a busy man. He functions “with anxiety and stress and breathlessness and by eating well, and only having two cups of coffee a day”.

The youngest trustee appointed to the Art Gallery of NSW in January last year when he was just 38, Quilty — when not painting — is not afraid to use his gravitas as a platform to point out social injustices, and shine a light on the darker parts of our history.

Engaging and articulate, he is a drawcard speaker across the country: writers festivals, university lectures and exhibition openings, particularly his own.

Lisa Slade, project curator at AGSA, says Quilty has become “one of Australia’s most important artists”. She first worked with him, alongside Mitzevich, a decade ago during his “Torana days” — his breakthrough series painted while on the travelling Brett Whiteley Scholarship, in which he painted the iconic Australian car.

“Ben has become a sort of touchstone for many Australian curators and collectors, I think because his prolific catalogue of work conflates Australian history, and all its discrepancies and contradictions, with his own sense of self, and personal identity,” she says.

“He has also, quite unexpectedly for him, become an important figure to a wider audience of Australians because he’s able to articulate some of the issues around who we are, and where we are going.”

Quilty’s body of work from his deployment with Australian troops in Afghanistan as official war artist in October 2011 attracted critical acclaim. Raw and moving, Ben Quilty After Afghanistan opened at the National Art School, Sydney, in early 2012.

It was a bone-crushing full house of the great and the good, and centre stage were his traumatised subjects, returned soldiers, now his good friends. The show is still touring the country. It finishes at the Australian War Memorial in May next year.

Quilty’s outraged criticisms of the Australian Defence Force and Department of Veterans Affair on the ABC’s Australian Story for a perceived reluctance to fully acknowledge, and properly treat post-traumatic stress disorder in returning soldiers has made him the go-to quasi-spokesman on PTSD. It also earned him as many fans as detractors. Only last week, he says, he listened to someone on the radio call him a “bleeding heart”.

“Afghanistan changed my career more than anything else,” reveals Quilty. “The way these young men and women were treated when they came home was like I could never imagine treating someone. Zero compassion, and that’s sadly an ongoing thing.”

Compassion is something close to Quilty’s heart. He grew up in Kenthurst in Sydney’s northwest; school captain in Year 6 and dux in art every year in high school at a Catholic boys school in Castle Hill. But it was an experience at high school — being flogged with the strap — that had a lasting effect.

“I went from winning the citizenship award in Year 6 to having the **** flogged out of me in Year 7, and that is what I think really taught me to rebel for such a long time, and to mistrust all forms of religious authority,” he says.

His parents, Richard and Dianne, were both socially and politically minded, albeit from opposites sides of the spectrum. and imparted in Quilty a great love of the arts. Quilty still remembers his first visit to AGNSW as a boy.

“I played cricket and tennis,” he says. “But to walk into that gallery for the first time made me realise there was this much more cerebral building that honoured another form of excellence other than sport, and that was an amazing eye opening thing for me.”

In 1991 Quilty’s Year 12 art majorwork was exhibited in the AGNSW’s Art Express, an annual show displaying works from promising Year 12 art students. He went on to study visual arts at Sydney University’s College of the Arts and the University of Western Sydney. He also studied Aboriginal culture and history at Monash University. Quilty has, he adds, been painting full-time for 12 years.

THE artist stands, focus returning to London where he will show some 25 paintings, and walks to the far wall of the studio.

Two rows of new works, 10 in total, hang in silent triumph. They are his newest series of portraits and self-portraits, made with Saatchi show, which opens in July, in mind. His subjects are the nearest and dearest males in his life. “Painting them is like simply holding a genetic mirror up against myself,” he says. He has painted these sitters, over and over, through the past eight years, and many before he moved into this studio. With each sitting he takes his subject where the creative freedom takes him. Oils slathered and lathered on to canvas with his signature cake palette knives. Works created in his visceral, viscous practice.

Dad Richard is up there. So too is a former Vietnam veteran, Private Phil Butler. Quilty met and befriended him through his work with returned soldiers.

Both are portrayed as English toby jugs. His old mate “Lloydy” is shown as a mushroom, alluding, Quilty says, to former wild days as young men, experimenting with hallucinogenic fungi.

Andre de Borde, gallery curator, sometime assistant and long-time friend, has morphed into a chicken. This one was painted after the pair lunched in the local pub. Son Joe, 8, brother to Livvy, 5, features too.

“It’s always a collaboration with Joe,” Quilty says fondly, looking at the work. “Joe makes the pose and decides what he wants to be. He decided he wanted to be a devil so I gave him evil eyes and fangs.”

Later this week, works will be crated and freighted to London. Works such as AGSA’s 12-panel Evening Shadows Rorschach after Johnstone, and the AGNSW’s Fairy Bowers Fall Rorschach. Quilty created these vast panelled works using a technique based on the inkblot method devised by Hermann Rorschach to diagnose mental illness.

Joe calls it “making squashies”. In both paintings, Quilty revisits a constant theme in his work as he strives to redress the historical omissions of Aboriginal massacres by late 19th-century European artists. Atrocities that were painted out, Quilty is painting back in.

His working title for this new body of work is Straight White Male, although the final title, and inclusion of works for the Saatchi show, is yet to be finally decided. Unlike a sponsored exhibition opening at a smaller Saatchi gallery today by fellow Australian artist Richard Maurovic (see inset story), Quilty’s works will not be for sale. He will meet Saatchi honchos in Hong Kong in coming weeks to nut out those details.

The Saatchi Gallery, of course, is the fifth most visited museum in the world. More than 1.5 million wander through its doors each year. Founded in 1985 by former advertising supremo, and avid contemporary art collector Charles Saatchi, it has exhibited some of the most iconic works in popular culture. Think Tracey Emin’s controversial work My Bed and Damien Hirst’s tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

“This portrait series is a lighthearted yet dark gesture that examines the role of myself as a straight white male in our society, which is probably the luckiest way to be born on our earth at the moment,” Quilty says. He stops and points to a self-portrait. He has painted himself with a huge snake-like nose. “Until recently I had never thought of it like that before, so I started making paintings with these metaphorical appendages. There is a sense of the absurd but what I am doing is asking myself, and the viewers, to imagine living with something, whether it be gender, sexuality or ethnicity, that made your position less tenable. Not the paradigm, but the polarity of the easiest living position in society.”

It is here in this studio that Quilty created much of his acclaimed work during the past few years. His Archibald-winning portrait of dear friend and artist Margaret Olley was finished here from hard ground etchings he made from live sittings in her Paddington home. The work is still on display in the AGNSW, and Quilty says he never gets used to seeing it there, side by side with William Dobell’s 1948 winning portrait of Olley as a young woman.

Quilty’s wife, writer Kylie Needham is currently working on the fourth draft of a screenplay she has written about Olley’s life as a young woman. It is to be made into a film by Samson and Delilah team Warwick Thornton and Kath Shelper.

One day Quilty says he will bring his Olley portrait home to the house he shares with Needham, Joe and Livvy. He will hang it in the kitchen where the family eats.

“I made the painting of Margaret, and it went and it won and I haven’t seen it home again, since, and the paintings of those people close to me are very personal really. Margaret was the true patron of my work, and she bought them and donated them to museums all over the place. She was also a very critical person. She saw in my work so much possibility, I think, but she was always hoping that possibility would be fulfilled by me starting to paint still lifes — flowers and things. But that is never going to happen. My work is always autobiographical and I can’t help but look for the flaws; the darkness in the light. I think that is what artists are supposed to do.”

Quilty’s Saatchi show is a lineage of work, and a continuation of some of the themes that concern him: the European colonisation of this country, the role of straight white males in that colonisation, and the destruction of Aboriginal culture, and the land.

“Where I live here in the southern highlands, people always say: “It’s so beautiful and English.” Well, it was cold climate rainforest and wet spiral forest all the way to here — and they cleared it. It’s actually a really scarred landscape that we have created to pretend we are somewhere else. So the Saatchi show is about ‘Australian-ness’ but a much less superficial look at Australia than people in England are used to, I think. Not the idea of Australia as all beautiful beaches, the Opera House, this larrikin culture and cricket. Many of us come from over there — we are them in a sense. So I think a lot of the work I make is about that notion of place, and where we all fit in.”

QUILTY moves to the back of the studio. On a large table sit ceramic sculptures. He scoured local shops to find antique jugs, then sculpted faces on them, took moulds and recast them. Straight white males in porcelain.

“There is a real dialogue between the paintings and the jugs in that I really see the confronting flaws of that straight white male paradigm, and how embarrassing those men can be. For having this sense of righteous, and this sense of self-importance simply because they were born one way.

“I mean, that’s quite absurd and quite humorous to watch if you can get outside it and look. Right now our country is run by straight white males bar one woman. I actually find it quite uncomfortable to talk about being straight, and white and male because we are in that position of dominance and power. Same as in England.”

Slade is intrigued to see how the Brits respond to Quilty’s work.

“It is going to be fascinating to see what happens when you talk back to a British audience,” says Slade. “What is their perception, appreciation and understanding of Australian history? The history of Australian artists in London is fascinating one and as a male artist interested in landscape, albeit in a changeling way, Ben is part of that ongoing tradition which is interesting. He really troubles this idea of place, and the idea that we import these visions of place back to England, just as I think Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale did all those years before him.”

Quilty routinely exhibits in Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. But his heralded show at Saatchi has already opened new doors.

“I have got galleries approaching me from all around the world because of Saatchi. Because they heard and they know and they say: ‘Bang we want to be a part of that.’ ”

After London, Quilty will spend three months in Paris with his family. He will exhibit at Galerie Allen, a new art space established by Australian galleriest Joseph Allen Shea. And although not at liberty yet to say too much, he does reveal he is in serious talks with a major Asian gallery, keen to sign him up as one of only two non-national artists

“I think every time any Australian artist gets the opportunity to show outside of Australia, with the spotlight on like with this show, there is the expectation that we’ll all of us be taken outside. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it’s a great thing for the Saatchi Gallery to let us do this. To let me do this.”

Ben Quilty’s solo exhibition at Saatchi Gallery, London, opens on July 3.

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