Last month, GOMA launched its highly anticipated exhibitions of acclaimed Australian artists Ben Quilty and Margaret Olley.
Quilty’s touring retrospective (from the Art Gallery of South Australia) is the first major survey of his works in a decade and includes 70 pieces from the early 2000s to the present. For the Queensland leg of the tour, Quilty is being showcased alongside Margaret Olley: A Generous Life, which brings together more than 100 works celebrating the legacy of the beloved Australian still-life painter.
The Olley collection is set among VJ boards – reminiscent of the kind of old Queenslander in which the artist once lived in Brisbane – creating a welcoming, personal sense of space. Olley’s own works are mixed in with portraits of the painter by other artists, including Quilty’s Archibald Prize-winning 2011 piece, Margaret Olley. “To have this exhibition now open with Margaret is by far the biggest thing that’s happened to me,” Quilty says. “The thing that Margaret taught me more than anything else about mentorship is that sense of living a life well.”
To link the complementary exhibitions, Quilty has created a series of four large drawings modelled on early sketches of his Olley portrait. Placed on the floor beneath these soft outlines are objects cast in chalk from Olley’s belongings which Quilty used to produce the work. Taken as a whole, the installation illustrates the evolution of what would become one of Australia’s best-known portraits.
Other Quilty works on display include Rorschach interpretations of Australian landscapes, intimate portraits born from his time as the official war artist in Afghanistan, and a collection of paintings inspired by recent visits to Lebanon, Syria and Greece, where he witnessed the treatment of refugees in those countries.
Quilty’s works bring a sense of humanity to stories the public has sometimes become desensitised to. They offer the chance to reconnect with history and engage with contemporary causes. A pair of paintings that do this particularly well are a portrait of his friend and Bali Nine member Myuran Sukumaran, and a self-portrait made the day after Sukumaran was executed by firing squad in 2015. “As an artist, I can make a painting because I’m in love, I can make a painting because I feel angry, I can make a painting because I’m devastated and on that day, in a way, I was making a painting for all those reasons,” Quilty says.
The exhibition also includes a Children’s Art Centre project that Quilty developed in collaboration with his children, Joe and Olivia. “All of us in the art world know about the Children’s Art Centre, so when they said to me, ‘Do you have any ideas for the children’s art program?’ I nearly shit myself.
“Then I thought, ‘Actually I know two people who will.’ I [asked Joe and Olivia], ‘What do you like about museums?’ and they went and wrote a huge list. So really [the gallery] collaborated with my children, I had nothing to do with it.”
The project includes footage of Olivia Quilty teaching viewers how to draw a portrait, an interactive multimedia component on how to make a self-portrait, and a short film. The space also showcases items from Quilty’s studio, including his workbench (covered in multiple layers of dried paint) and a portrait of Quilty by his son Joe.