At the age of just 46, Ben Quilty is one of Australia’s most renowned living painters, and a major new retrospective of his career so far is about to open at the Art Gallery of South Australia.
I speak with Quilty over the phone the day before the show is due to open. It’s not a great line, but he’s clear and articulate. I can hear his voice echo around him in the empty gallery as he looks out at decades of his own work.
“I’m completely overwhelmed to be honest,” he says. “To create I think you have to have a balance of a massive ego and serious self-doubt. I didn’t know if I’d be comfortable with this until the moment I walked in. I was thinking, will there be links between the works? Will it make sense?”
The good news is that it does. Thanks in part to the curation of Lisa Slade (the gallery’s assistant director of artistic programs), he’s seeing connections between works he’d never really noticed before.
Phone-in-hand, he’s standing in front of a 2016 painting from his “Last Supper” series, a two by 2.5 metre behemoth (“we couldn’t get it out of the studio door”) depicting a group of monstrous figures around a dinner table – a comment on the celebration of narcissism the Trump presidency has normalised. “Straight white male leaders sitting around getting pissed while the world burns,” he says.
The painting is also about the responsibilities our leaders are shirking. He sees a connection to his earliest works concerned with colonialism. “My ancestors came here, and brought this chaotic sense of destruction,” he says. “And now we fail to take responsibility for that.”
Quilty paints about the issues that matter to him. He talks about them too. My questions are about painting, but within a few minutes we’re talking about Indigenous recognition, refugees and the impending environmental catastrophe. This is what weighs on his mind, and this is the weight he puts on the canvas. It’s what gives his paintings the scrawled but precise immediacy of a protest song. In the orange life vest of “Ali Jaffari” (2017), he evokes the refugee crisis with just a few stark, poignant scrapes of paint.
What, I ask him, drives his urge to paint the political and the downtrodden? “It’s mum and dad, I guess,” he says. “That’s what we were taught to do.” In Quilty’s family home, nothing was taboo. Everything was up for discussion. Now, he can provoke discussion in front of a wider audience. “I hope I’m bringing my children up to do the same. If you have the opportunity you should use it.”
When he was starting out at Sydney College of the Arts, the art world saw painting as old hat. “There was a lot of discussion about how painting was coming to an end,” he says. “I dare say at that period of my life the act of painting was kind of rebellious.”
If his passion hadn’t led him to focus on painting, it might’ve been video. He had a former career as a film editor at Channel Seven. He recalls the first time he saw a Marina Abramović video (“an extraordinary thing to witness”) and brings up the work of video artist Shaun Gladwell (who was in his year at art school) multiple times in our chat. He’s dabbled in other mediums, notably video, etchings and sculpture, but painting remains his central focus. “I go out of my comfort zone, but I come back. It always makes me a better painter at the end of the day.”
“Painting is such a joy,” he says. “I work to use anger and destructive emotions in a positive way. It’s a pretty exciting thing to be able to do. All you need is an implement, a pigment and a surface.”
He makes it sound like something anyone could do, but in the Australian art scene, Quilty’s name towers above other living artists. Retrospectives of this scale aren’t common for Australian artists his age. In recent years, his profile has grown to the level of living icon. It’s a status he’s hardly comfortable with, and one he’s not wild about discussing.
“It’s weird, yeah,” he says. “I’m only just getting my head around it.” He tails off, and quickly changes the subject back to Shaun Gladwell. But I can tell it plays on his mind. Before long we’re talking about one of his works, a sculpture called “The Encouragement Award” (2010), a black skull crowned with snake heads. He describes it as a trophy too heavy to lift: “a young man’s nightmare,” he says.
Last week, he was on the cover of Good Weekend. He groans when I bring it up. “That stupid photograph,” he says. The cover depicts him with a crown of barbed wire, a Christ-like figure bearing (according to the caption) “a complex burden”. “I was very embarrassed,” he says.
At least his local newsagent got a kick out of it. “She just cackled with laughter when I bought the paper,” he says.
There’s an unusual tension in the position Quilty finds himself in: Australian culture is suspicious of the arts, and yet here he is, given a rockstar profile on the cover of a major newspaper’s weekend magazine. Perhaps that’s the “complex burden” he’s stuck with.
“When I went to art school, there was a general community feeling that the arts wasn’t important and that I’d come out totally unemployable,” he says. “Brett Whiteley had just died [by heroin overdose], and people probably thought that’s where I’d go. It was proof of the debaucherous self-indulgence of art.”
So even at art school people were comparing him, in a roundabout way, to Whiteley, the last great icon of Australian painting our culture anointed.
“I’ve always known in my gut just how important art is,” he says. “In the Indigenous culture of this country, art is as fundamental as food.
“I want to prove there is a place for it.”