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Ben Quilty: Painting with purpose

Adelaide Festival

Australian artist Ben Quilty’s paintings from life remind us that death is never far from our door, writes Lisa Slade, curator of a major survey exhibition of his work soon to open at the Art Gallery of SA as part of the Adelaide Festival.

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Ben Quilty is about to be the father of a teenager. Turning 13, Joe Quilty is not only the son of an artist but an artist himself. Joe likes to paint, creating still-life subjects and landscapes – working from life.

Dad Ben also works from life. He has painted birds, cars, his friends and his family.

Joe has been the subject of his father’s work. As a squalling newborn, Joe’s cry is rendered in paint so loud you need ear muffs. Painted as a hamburger, Joe – aka Joe-burger – collapses the experience of paternity with popular culture.

Ben Quilty, Joe Burger, 2006, Southern Highlands, NSW, oil on canvas, 150.0 x 160.0cm; Private collection, Courtesy the artist.

Ben Quilty’s paintings from life, including the portraits of his baby son, remind us that death is never far from our door. Still-life paintings have always performed this role. As memento mori, or “reminders of death”, they urge the onlooker to seize the day, to live life and to live it well.

To live life well means different things to different people. For Quilty, it means to live with purpose and to paint with purpose.

The retreat to the studio to paint in a manner that is now his signature – with muscularity and meaning – is one way that he makes sense of the here and now. In his words: “My work is about working out how to live in this world, it’s about compassion and empathy but also anger and resistance.”

Quilty is a critical citizen. This is demonstrated through his persona and through his painting.

He painted his new friends alive, carrying the wounds of war, and reminded us in swathes of bruised paint of war’s pointlessness

As a young male painter, he challenged our assumptions about nationhood by painting our art heroes (Streeton, Roberts, Russell and even Van Gogh) as budgerigars, once-wild creatures of the soil made tame and domesticated.

As a young father, he visited Afghanistan and thereafter sought the company of those who had experienced the crucible of conflict and human suffering. He painted his new friends alive, carrying the wounds of war, and reminded us in swathes of bruised paint of war’s pointlessness.

Ben Quilty, New Bird, 2017, Southern Highlands, NSW, oil on linen, 80.0 x 70.0cm; Collection of the artist, Courtesy the artist. Photo: Mim Stirling

Quilty’s recent work with refugee children in Lebanon, Greece and Serbia is brought to life in Home, published by Penguin Random House and including an introduction by his friend and fellow humanist Richard Flanagan.

The language of art is international, crossing class, culture and even crisis. Some of his collection of drawings made by Syrian children, full of pain but also hope, had to be smuggled out of the Middle East, such was the fear of retribution.

Joe Quilty may well have inherited his father’s sense of agency and advocacy. And if so, he is not alone in his generation. Recent protests across the country demonstrated Gen Z’s emerging citizenry. Among my favourite teen slogans, in protest at political inaction on climate change, was the statement that smarter cabinets had been seen at Ikea!

One response to the teen activists was to condemn activism in schools. More art and activism will mean that the power of art, and change, belongs to us all and to the future.

In the words of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei:If my art has nothing to do with people’s pain and sorrow, what is ‘art’ for?”

The exhibition Quilty is curated by Art Gallery of South Australia assistant director Dr Lisa Slade. Quilty will be presented in Adelaide as part of the 2019 Adelaide Festival from March 2 until June 2, then travels to Queensland and New South Wales. In Adelaide, the exhibition will be augmented by Joe’s World, an interactive art space for children and families, inspired by the work of Joe Quilty. 

Ben Quilty, Self-portrait after Afghanistan, 2012, Southern Highlands, NSW, oil on linen, 130.0 x 120.0cm; Private collection, Sydney, Courtesy the artist. Photo: Mim Stirling

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