Archive for April, 2016

An Afternoon at the Castlemaine Gallery with Ben Quilty

April 11, 2016 - 9:18 am 4 Comments

 

“Have you seen the Ben Quilty exhibition at the Castlemaine Art Gallery?” I asked a local man.

“Which one is that?”

“It’s called ‘After Afghanistan’.”

“Uh, no. I’m not into war.”

“Neither is Quilty.”

The fact that Ben Quilty was an official war artist when he was in Afghanistan must have created a dilemma for him. It no doubt has allowed him to further investigate Australian masculinity, for his focus in this exhibition is on Australian soldiers, mostly male, though female soldiers get a look-in too. His response may be what is expected of an official war artist—the heroic proportions of his portraits revealing the artist’s deep respect for his subjects.

Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan, which Quilty described in a television interview as a violent, chaotic place, is depicted as an ugly draining of colour and merging shapelessness, an inchoate cry of protest, like an angry toddler’s frenzied scrawl. Quilty’s desperate fury at the incomprehensibility of this setting is visceral.

The faces of his subjects, however, are lovingly created, even in the thickest impasto. It is quite the measure of the artist’s mastery of his medium that the observer can note the heavy layering of paint at too-close quarters with perhaps a qualm or two, and then step back a few paces to see those colours and lines segue into a remarkable portrait. The three aspects of the face of Flight-Commodore John Oddie are particularly moving.

“The pale blue of his eyes becomes almost liquid as you walk past. It is a deliquescence,” said one of our party, lingering on the last word.

This same observer, an artist herself, made an interesting comment about the nude forms in this exhibition. She pointed out the similarity of the style with that of Francis Bacon. For her, these nudes just do not work, because they recall Bacon’s work which is usually about homo-eroticism, a cold appraisal whose gaze is pornographic, not empathic. I can understand what she was getting at. Quilty, the empath, is also didactic. He is telling us of the soldiers’ physical and psychological suffering. Another in our party mentioned the film footage which accompanied the exhibition. It was an episode of Australian Story where Quilty says he asked the soldiers who came to his studio to sit for him, to choose a pose which best exemplified their experience of soldiering in Afghanistan. According to him, they chose the poses. Clearly Quilty asked his subjects to pose nude for him to emphasise their vulnerability—which observers get, in spades. They also get the anguish and the agony.

So if you’re not into war, have a look at Ben Quilty’s take on it and marvel at his portraits, his perfect choices of colour, and those thick, thick lines and daubs of paint which create the most delicate empathies.