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Torana 6, 2003, Ben Quilty
Dark Subject Matter
Skull RM, 2005, Ben Quilty
Ben Quilty was born in 1973 in Australia and grew up in Kenthurst in Sydney’s North West. After years of labouring during the day, working in kitchens at night and “getting nowhere fast” as an artist, Quilty decided to get a real job. He completed a second degree (the first being a bachelor of visual arts- majoring in painting) in design and re-skilled as a film editor, landing a spot in the Channel 7 newsroom. And there he might have stayed if he had not have turned back to his misspent youth for inspiration. Quilty’s paintings of his Holden Torana produced a sell-out show in 2002 and since then his work has been seen in many exhibits and art fairs. Some of his work can be seen at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2009 Quilty was named runner up in the Archibald Prize for his portait of Jimmy Barnes. He then won the Archibald Prize two years later for his portrait of Margaret Olley. From 11 October until 3 November 2011, Quilty was attached to the Australian Defence Force (ADF) observing their activities in Kabul, Kandahar and Tarin Kowt. His task was to record and interpret the experiences of Australian service personnel who are deployed as part of Operation Slipper. After his return, Quilty spent six months producing work for the Australian War Memorial's National Collection.
In the past QUilty's work has often explored
Ben Quilty's Torana series is a reflection of his younger days as a young and reckless Australian boy. The car is a symbol for the risk taking behaviour he commonly found himself getting into with his mates. He saw activities of reckless behavior as a right of passage into manhood. Quilty himself has described these antics as rituals of 'self initiation', a bunch of blokes proving something to each other by putting themselves in deliberate danger. It took the sense of perspective that only time can provide for Quilty to realise that his own experiences of being a young man on the brink of violent, wilful implosion, wrestling with the complexities of masculinity, were the stories he had to tell. At the time, he says, “I thought I was just a rebel who should be in jail, I couldn’t see that anything creative could come of it.” In 2003, Quilty paid tribute to the drug-fuelled, testosterone-charged, car culture of his youth in a series of paintings depicting his beloved Holden Torana and his career took off at high speed.
Ben Quilty has painted numerous amounts of skulls throughout his career. It can be said that these images are trying to portray how young men feel about death and how they quite often continue to take risks without much regard for their own lives.
Quilty's work often alludes to his own personal history and he employs a wide range of genres, including portraiture, still life, and landscape. Quilty was influenced by the possibilities implicit in the works of the artists Frank Auerbach and Nicholas Harding. He was drawn to the thick impasto painting style they both employed and this is what started his exploration of his own painting style and language. As Quilty developed this language, his work took on more gestural, organic forms; he began to apply huge swathes of paint using large palette knives. While his application is lush and he uses beautiful colours in his works the subject matter is usually dark and confronting.
In the past Quilty's works have often examined ideas of masculinity and looked at how young men in particular are initiated into contemporary Australian society. Notions of mortality, masculinity, and the often painful national history of Australia are often explored in relation to his own experiences. He often created images depicting the self-destructive nature of Australian males. Becoming the Australian War Memorial's official war artist thus seems like a natural progression in his career. "The opportunity to go and work with the young men in Afghanistan was the height of my exploration of the way masculinity plays itself out in our culture".
Troy Park, After Afghanistan, 2012, Ben Quilty, oil on linen.
Budgie After Budgie After Streeton, 2004, oil on canvas, Ben Quilty.
Throughout his career the concept of Australian-ness has been a major influence on his work. “Part of my practice has always dealt with my feelings about
Australian-ness. Travelling reminds me that, contrary to many patriotic Australians, this country is not the ‘best country in the world’”. Quilty references
Australian-ness through the use of iconic Australian subject matter such as the Holden Torana, Captain Cook, Budgerigars and Cockatoos. As with Quilty’s paintings of cars, his fascination with birds
stands for something much more.
Quilty’s Budgie portraits – depicting pet Budgies – are painted in mug-shot style, with each bird isolated from the other, plumped up and useless and no longer capable of flight. By giving them nicknames like Lloydy, Whytie and Beast, they are, according to the artist: far from their native form – both geographically and physically, and I thought a fitting representation of the way white Australian society has claimed its own identity.