Quilty, which opens at Art Gallery New South Wales on November 9, is the first major survey in a decade of one of Australia’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, Ben Quilty. It spans 15 years of his intimate portraits, nihilistic landscapes, early works about Australian masculinity, and his reflections on social and political injustice.
The breadth and depth of the show is impressive, the more so considering Quilty is just 46 (which is young to be the subject of a significant show in a state institution spanning decades of work).
The exhibition first opened at the Art Gallery of South Australia. And the show has been tweaked for its Sydney iteration as part of a national tour that included the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane.
The AGNSW incarnation of the show is particularly meaningful for Quilty; he first exhibited his HSC artwork there at 17 as part of Artexpress in 1991, and also won the gallery’s Archibald Prize with his portrait of Margaret Olley in 2011. Today Quilty is an impassioned activist, using his brush to draw our attention to our responsibility as citizens living in an increasingly fragmented world.
The exhibition charts Quilty’s work in four rooms, beginning with the artist’s early reflections on the initiation rituals performed by young Australian men, then his experience as an official war artist in Afghanistan. It also includes his landscapes and his campaign to save the lives of Bali Nine pair Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.
Work produced during visits to Lebanon, Lesbos and Serbia with author Richard Flanagan is also featured, along with intimate portraits of the artist, his family and his friends, and Quilty’s recent grotesques made in response to contemporary politics.
A favourite work is Self portrait: the executioner (2015), which was painted the day after the convicted Australian drug smugglers Chan and Sukumaran were executed by firing squad in Indonesia on April 29, 2015.
These days Quilty juggles his art making and activism with his responsibilities at the AGNSW, where he is an active board member. When Broadsheet chats to him he has just attended the ground-breaking ceremony for the new $344 million Sydney Modern Project, which on completion will allow the gallery to accommodate more visitors and better show its extensive collection of Indigenous art.