Ben Quilty: Life’s What You Do While You’re Waiting To Die
Painting has long been considered a problematic medium. Its purported ‘death’ or ‘return’ has punctuated art historical and critical discourse for much of the last century: it has endured its ‘supplanting’ by photography, the attacks of ‘anti-retinal’ art and the readymade, and its association with bourgeois privilege. In more recent times, painting has had to justify its contemporary relevance against charges that as a form it exemplifies the commodity par excellence , and is thus incapable of the critique available to conceptual and post-object art.
It was in this climate of (yet another) ‘crisis’ in painting that Ben Quilty first studied art. He was already a painter, having won a painting prize while still at school, having also established an exchange with the significant Australian painter Frank Hodgkinson. Yet the critical context in which he found himself forced Quilty to strive to answer the question: why paint? Quilty’s practice has developed through a rigorous, reflective analysis of this question, an investigation that takes in the actual application of paint as much as the history of Australian painting, his immediate contemporary urban environment — street culture, the internet — as much as the broader theme of cultural identity.
The Torana paintings 2003 — a key series that brought Quilty to prominence — exemplify this process. The ostensible content of these works is the vintage car, with its redolence of the moustachioed machismo of the 1970s and the sexual rites of passage of a high-octane adolescence. Yet the treatment of the subject is central to their meaning: the paint is laid on thick, in sensuous mounds; the colour is exuberant but harmoniously balanced; the strokes are large and energetic but precise. That is, the paintings are also about painting itself: the joy of the materiality of the process, the effect of treating mass-produced objects as worthy of portraiture, the difference between the imperfections of painting and the seamlessness of industrial design and photography (the visual languages in which cars are usually rendered). Moreover, the works fall between the cracks of conventional genres: they could be portraits, given the personality each car exudes; they could be landscapes, given their association with Australian national identity; and yet again, they approach abstraction, the planes of colour so subtly negotiated that at certain moments the cars melt into pure composition. In his latest series — including the works Art-Landing (Osbourne) 2004 and Art-Megadeth 2004 — Quilty follows a similar approach. These paintings are also both about painting and the represented object: they share the lush materiality of the Torana series, while their ostensible content is also an aspect of ‘yobbo’ culture, in this instance, heavy metal. Yet there are some significant differences. Unlike the Torana, which seduced Quilty’s eye while sitting outside his studio window, these images are appropriated, specifically from T-shirt and sleeve-cover design. Distinct also is the tenor of the images: the Torana may have communicated an aggressive masculinity, but it remained essentially a domesticated object, whereas the current series depicts scenarios of fantasy and horror.
Of course the high art treatment and appropriation of popular culture phenomena is nothing new. Yet, Quilty’s paintings go beyond the politics of these well-tried art strategies. Undoubtedly the formal treatment bestows ‘high art’ cachet on these degraded mass-media designs, and, yes, the sub-cultural (at times comic) defiance of heavy metal still comes through, but Quilty’s paintings stand on their own. The thick, luminous impasto treatment, together with the formal composition, transforms the (drearily) familiar skeletons and devils of heavy metal iconography into genuinely intriguing creatures with metaphysical overtones, in the tradition of Fuseli’s or Goya’s horror fantasies. The viewer is compelled to confront these demons, whose power to haunt has been revitalised through paint.
Quilty has juxtaposed these cloying, nightmarish scenarios with a contrasting series of works painted during his stay in Paris while on the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship. These fast and loose scenes of the city as viewed from Quilty’s studio window are drawn in the spirit of the artist whose legacy is commemorated in that prize; indeed, Whiteley’s daily sketches of Paris hold up as some of the most enticing of his works. Quilty’s paintings are almost like lightning sketches, their quick lines remaining ambiguous, barely evoking a Haussman façade, a garden or a tree-top. The artist appears to be testing the limits of what it is to paint, experimenting with the elements of the process — perspective, light, distance, time — to challenge himself to make figuration from abstraction, abstraction from figuration.
Pride And Patriotism Ben Quilty: God’s Middle Children
“It’s just as Yeats said: in dreams begins responsibility. Turn it on its head and you could say that where there is no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise.”
Haruki Murakami [i]
When I visited the Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow, in the early 90s the statues in the rear courtyard particularly impressed me. Monumental bronze representations of the one-time leaders and heroes of the collapsed communist regime, pulled down from the streets and civic squares, were lain out like so many corpses in the storage area behind the gallery. Ben Quilty’s 2007 exhibition at GRANTPIRRIE consists of a new body of work – portrait heads of a baby boy (his 6-month old son Joe), young men and old men. A number of the heads are shown on their side as if reclining, reminding me of those toppled bronze heads in Moscow and their associations of troubled beliefs, loss of sureties and social revolution.
While Quilty has painted portraits before – his work appeared in the 2005 and 2006 Archibald prizes – this body of work signals a dramatic shift in subject from the macho visions drawn from boy culture in the West of Sydney. Quilty’s current paintings of his newborn son Joe are an unlikely subject for the artist, given the testosterone driven bravado of his earlier paintings of fast, mean machines and heavy-metal death heads. His images of the 1970s Holden Torana, a car legendary for its ‘street cred’ and designer machismo, first attracted attention only a few years ago. They were followed by a series of fantastic anthropomorphic vehicles: vans and cars with skull faces that put a twist on the ‘happy-face’ appeal favoured by contemporary car designers. Toothed and grimacing, the fierce veneer suggested an outward expression of male angst and also embodied road rage as a response to the urban condition. At the heart of these paintings is the metaphor of potent male sexuality. According to Quilty, “a lot of my work has been about young men looking for initiation.”
While babies might seem a long way from this turf, they represent an evolution in life’s initiation for the artist. Quilty’s earlier work represents the apprenticeship of fast food and fast cars, drinking and drugs, graffiti and petty vandalism that typifyed the Australian male rites of passage in the 1980s. The ‘Joe’ paintings, in contrast, speak of a manliness acquired through fatherhood – parental delight, pride and responsibility. Celebrating the emergence of a new life, the paintings counter the phallic cars, skulls and self destructive impulses of adolescence. When shown at the National Portrait Gallery in the Truth and Likeness exhibition, a female colleague reported that the paintings of baby Joe had to have been done by a man. A woman artist, I was assured, would be accused of soppiness and sentimentality but a man might paint his child as an expression of tenderness that could only emphasise an authentic masculinity. (A similar reversal of the gender claims on subject matter occurred two decades earlier when male artists found it near impossible to depict the female nude without suggesting aggression but the same subject iterated feminine values in the hands of a woman). However, this is not to say that Quilty’s paintings of his bubby are all fluffy and angelic or conventionally ‘feminine’. Each endearing face is built from a welter of vigorous and robust brushstrokes. If these paintings were sculpture they would be carved with a chainsaw. The images of Joe, like all the portrait heads in the exhibition, possess an imposing aspect that both disturbs and challenges viewers’ preconceptions, an effect derived from their monumental scale and the dialogue between paint and what is painted.
Quilty’s paintings encompass more than subject matter to include the application of the paint itself. He employs broad gestural strokes, trowelled on to block out the broad masses. The chunky brushstrokes tell of energy and activity, marking a trail of aesthetic decisions determining colour and form, while acting as a building block for constructing likeness. Quilty’s exuberant paintwork is held in check by contour and tone, which describe salient features of each subject. The very physicality of the impasto paint plays a significant role in the recognition of the painting as an object and, simultaneously, as a constructed image. Quilty’s paintings play out an alternating focus from image to painterly topography. He negotiates representation from the resistant, sensual materiality of the paint medium and the conventional desire for a recognizable image.
Painting After The End Of Art Ben Quilty Jan Murphy Gallery Melbourne Art Fair 2006
If there is an “avant-garde” art form in Australia today, it is undoubtedly figurative painting. It is figurative painting that has gone furthest in the elimination of critical meaning, of history, of everything we have come to know as art. It is figurative painting that all the other art forms aspire to as a kind of impossible utopian condition: post-historical, post-medium, post-art. If it was once the case that painting was surpassed by photography, now it is photography and all of its off-shoots—video, installation, even performance—that is surpassed by painting. Today it is figurative painting alone that knows what it is to be art after the end of art.
Let us recall for a moment T.J. Clark’s brilliant observation that what is at stake in Manet’s work is the “dissonance” between “painting’s intractable means”—the fact that oil paintings take a long time to make—and its “casual, available overall look”. It is to speak of the way that Manet is the first “modern” painter, the first for whom—and this is what it means to say that his work is mediated by photography, even though photography was not a real artistic option at the time—the relationship to the medium was historicized, a matter of choice. After Manet, the tradition of oil painting is not something the artist is simply in, but something they self-consciously have to occupy or seek to resolve. Manet is the first “post-medium” artist, the first for whom their medium was anachronistic, mediated by a choice not taken, inhabited by something essentially photographic as that which does away with all media.
It is of course to suggest that Manet is already involved in the “death of painting”: the long meditation through painting on the historical impossibility of painting. It is a lineage that runs all the way from Manet through to someone like Gerhard Richter, who literalises through his recourse to both abstraction and figuration the arbitrariness of any particular style of painting, and through the serial nature of his abstraction the historical conditions of beauty. It is a matter not so much of the end of painting as of its permanent ironising or self-questioning: painting henceforth about itself, reflecting upon itself, undermining itself from within. It is not the end of painting but rather its endlessness, guaranteed by the ceaseless meditation on its continued possibility.
The young Sydney-based painter Ben Quilty inherited all of these concerns when he first attended art school in the 1990s. And indeed much of his early work—continuing in a way up to the present —can be seen as about the “death of painting”. His images of beautiful but now extinct parrots, no-longer-manufactured cars and skulls can all be understood as tropes for the absurdity, unfashionability, even disappearance of painting—all executed, of course, in the most luscious, virtuosic and painterly of styles. It would be a typical instance of that criticality—Clark’s “dissonance”—that characterises post-modern art: the artist deliberately staying outside of their medium and commenting upon it as though from somewhere else.
But at the same time we can see—or would want to see—another temperament or tonality in Quilty’s work. It is diacult to describe, but we would say that it is characterised at once by a radical indi¤erence towards the medium—the work is now post-medium in the true sense—and by a simple immersion in the medium. The crucial point is that there is no longer any critical distance on to oil painting, no critical commentary on its historical position or “dissonance” between its form and content. Perhaps this other possibility can be seen at those moments when Quilty moves away from any recognisable subject matter in his work or when his objects are caught in the process of metamorphosing into something else: cars into hamburgers, hamburgers into skulls, skulls into cars… There is a literal fading away of the “death of painting” to be seen in a work like ‘Hill End Landscape’: the canvas is drained of all negative qualities, leaving us with an alternatively lushly or indi¤erently painted landscape that means nothing, says nothing, implies nothing. This is an absolutely post-historical work that is also strangely pre-historical. And it is at this point that we might say that the long artistic adventure of modernism (of which post-modernism was only an extension) is finally over.
 And our ultimate point would be that this series of critical concerns arising out of the history of painting has now been taken up by such photographers as Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky, whose work is fundamentally about the “death of painting”.
 We might even say that the series of ‘Hamburgers with the Lot’ is allegorical of the historical condition of painting today, with its surfeit of artistic choices, its glut of incompatible alternatives.