QAGOMA has coupled two major artists to showcase at the same time. One is Margaret Olley and I have written about her exhibition here.
The other exhibition, which opened a few weeks later, showcases the work of artist Ben Quilty. When you look at their styles, their ages and their experiences, you would think there is nothing binding them together. But nothing could be further than the truth.
Ben Quilty is one of Australia's foremost young artists but he owes some of his success to Margaret Olley. Margaret was on the panel which awarded the Brett Whitely Travel Scholarship Fund to Ben. At the time he was producing artwork which he thought she would hate but actually Margaret was able to see his potential and his artistic talent.
Perhaps the turning point in his career was his portrait of Margaret Olley, which won him the Archibald Prize in 2011. They became firm friends and if you go to the gallery, don't miss the film which is projected, where you will hear Ben relating many lovely stories about Margaret.
Ben's portrait of Margaret 2011
In that same year, he was appointed a war artist, which took him to Afghanistan. This left a marked impression on him. When he returned to Australia, he invited some of the army personnel he met to come and pose for him. In some of the work displayed, they pose nude, emphasising their utter vulnerability as human beings. No uniforms, or insignia, no medals to glorify war. A more human and understandable impression of the horrors that war often leaves on people who are involved in it.
Ben himself states that his work is "about working out how to live in this world, its about compassion and empathy but also anger and resistance". He does this with courage and flair, even though this may be confronting to us as viewers.
One of the series of paintings, which is very much along these lines, is called 'Inhabit' – a series of paintings, which evolve both in form and in thought. They start out with something quite abstract which morphs into the form of a devil and then into Captain Cook's image, thereafter it is Ben's image that appears. Finally, in his studio setting and amongst bird cages, that takes us back to the first expeditionary voyages to Australia, when Joseph Banks commissioned bird cages to trap birds to take back with them to the UK. For many years Captain Cook has been regarded as a first explorer, an intrepid one, a bit of a hero. But in fact, Ben reminds us of the increased violence he showed in his later years, towards indigenous people, and the many cases of abuse perpetrated in the name of the coloniser. Inhabit re-examines this perception and expresses the loss of that idea.
Ben has also produced an impressive series of Rorshachs – a painting which is mirrored by being folded over. These were once viewed as a tool to read into your psyche – they don't hold much scientific value as such but he has used them as a way of expressing images which on the face of it seem serene and beautiful but are often associated with sites where indigenous massacres took place.
Ben is an artist who is not afraid of taking up themes and perceptions and turning them on their head, whether it be war as in his landscape of trees and mountains with Afghanistan written across this otherwise idyllic landscape, to the interestingly named "Last Supper" depicting a post Trump world, where caricatures and scary people are carving up the world for their own interests.
His collection of life jackets with names attached was inspired by his visit to Greece to see the refugees on one of the islands. Ultimately these life jackets, which are not substantial and real, have lead to deaths. In this series, they are accompanied by the names of people who have taken their lives while in detention offshore in Australia.
His themes are current, his palette is thick with paint and purpose and his effect is powerful and punchy. Quilty is on until the 13th of October 2019. Gallery of Modern Art. Stanley Place, South Brisbane.