A major solo exhibition for one of Australia’s most renowned and controversial artists has opened in Brisbane in a rare tribute for a living painter.
Fame has elevated artist Ben Quilty to single-name status but he insists he is still an “outsider”, despite a solo exhibition bearing his moniker at one of Australia’s major art institutions.
'Quilty' covers more than 20 years of work dealing with subjects central to the Australian identity and have been recognised with some of the nations top art awards.
At the media preview in the cavernous Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) he wanders between congenial conversations with journalists and admirers looking slightly bewildered.
“It’s pretty weird, I don’t know, I’m still pinching myself like a 19-year-old kid at art school who wasn’t quite sure about his future,” Quilty said reflecting on his life’s work so far and contemplating future directions.
“The other day my wife said to me, ‘You’re part of the establishment now’, and I was like, ‘What?’. I guess, maybe I am, I’m an establishment of one then.
“I still feel like an outsider, I don’t fit in and I think that’s probably healthy to be honest, the art world often eats itself.”
The ’Quilty’ exhibition starts with his misspent youth of drink, drugs and fast cars, which jump-started his career, stylised paintings of beloved Toranas from the 1990s having at the entrance.
They were spotted by Quilty’s mentor in his early days, the late and great Australian painter Margaret Olley.
A specially commissioned work for 'Quilty' rendering his 2011 Archibald winning portrait of Olley on a wall overlooks the entrance of the exhibition.
“Margaret was very acerbic, and would tell me not to make paintings about negativity, she felt there was enough badness in the world and my role was to make beautiful things,” Quilty said.
“She was so proud of the young artists she mentored, and I was only one of may, she’d be really proud (of this exhibition).”
A solo exhibition like this is a rare accolade for a living, mid-career artist.
“Usually this type of format is reserved for artists who are long dead,” said 'Quilty' curator Lisa Slade of the South Australian Art Gallery.
“This is a way of saying, ‘Hey everybody, you think you know Ben Quilty, you think you know Ben Quilty because you see him a lot on TV’?
“He’s arguably one of the most recognisable Australian artists but do you know his work?”
Face-to-face with the confronting issues, there are Quilty’s portraits of traumatised soldiers painted after serving as the official Australian war artist in Afghanistan to one of now-executed Bali Nine drug smuggler Myuran Sukumaran, who he befriended and fought to save.
Alongside hangs a self-portrait of Quilty as executioner.
Recent subjects include the Aboriginal massacres of Australia’s colonial frontier wars in this trademark Rorschach style, at the opposite end of the gallery is an abstract portrait of former prime minister Tony Abbott and a 'last supper' inspired by the election of US president Donald Trump.
“I saw in Ben Quilty a capacity to cut through, a capacity to communicate about the pressing issues of our time, the capacity to have a conversation through art about what matters,” said curator Lisa Slade.
“This exhibition maps a fairly turbulent time in Australian politics, Ben has been and is a critical citizen who looks at our time and place in the world.
“These works will only become more significant across time. I see them as a time capsule about who we are, what we’re thinking about who we are, and how we’re crafting new ways of thinking about our selves.”
The last room features paintings of life jackets and a huge Rorschach-style work of an idyllic island, inspired by the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean after he travelled to Syria, Lebanon and Greece.
Quilty is more circumspect about his influence.
“I don’t mean to be political, I just feel very driven, like everyone, we all feel, we all have an opinion and through art you can engage in a debate that is much more thought through than tweeting about it,” he said.
“A tweet takes a second and it’s out there, whereas I can take my anger to my studio and spend weeks considering it and in the end give a much more valuable opinion.
“Inequality is an interesting thing to make work about and by making work about it you help the debate and hopefully make the place a better place to be.”
Now in his mid-forties, while he might pinch his 19-year-old self still, he believes he has moved on.
“I hope I’ve become a better painter, I’ve practised a lot,” he laughs.’
“There’s been constant thread through my own work of exploring my own identity, I’m a participant, I’m part of it and the negative comments I make about society are always reflected through me. I take full responsibility for it.”
“I hope the comments I’m making have become more sophisticated, hope I’ve stopped being an angry young man and it’s done with more passion and sophistication rather than just blurting out furry at the world.
On show for the first time are works completed in the last 12 months with his trademark heavy layers of paint that are so fresh they are is still curing.
“I’m doing a lot of work referencing Santa Claus in a way, by using men with a Santa beard, the biker beard, there’s a lot of symbolism in that, I’m just exploring,” he said with a quizzical look.
“I don’t really have the answers to the questions and we’ll see what happens. I love them, I really do, I’m really proud of them, how they sort of fell out of me.”