Award-winning Australian artist Ben Quilty’s latest series of paintings is a potent examination of the cult of masculinity through a keen exploration of history and culture, as well as his own identity.
In the summer of 2014, Ben Quilty (b. 1973, Sydney) became the first Australian artist to be invited to hold a solo exhibition at London’s internationally acclaimed Saatchi Gallery. The artist follows up the groundbreaking show with a headlining solo exhibition in Hong Kong. “Straight White Male” runs at Pearl Lam Galleries until 1 March 2015.
War and masculinity
CULT Magazine writes that Ben Quilty has “dedicated much of his revered creative output to reflecting and, more importantly, interrogating the fraught nature of Australian masculinity”. While earlier works focused on teenage rites of passage and young male angst (drinking, drugs, vandalism, violence, etc.), the artist’s defining body of work – the 2012 show “Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan” that catapulted him to fame – was produced after his 2011 attachment to the Australian Defence Force as an official war artist in Afghanistan. Speaking to CULT, Quilty declared:
War is a very flawed but very successful way of initiating young men […] you meet young 19- or 20-year-old men who have served for nine months in Afghanistan […] and they are actually functioning young men. But the risk, and the costs, […] is way, way too much. As we’ve seen, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is just running rife […] we can look to the Vietnam War as a guide for how PTSD unravels over decades […]
For Quilty, war is the ultimate signification of the violent, self-destructive initiation and rites of passage that western young men have to go through. He continues to explore this theme in “Straight White Male”, painting raw, moving portraits of Australian war veterans based on live sittings. Private Phillip Butler, 7ARU, No. 2 (2014), for example, depicts a Vietnam veteran who was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. In his artist’s statement, Quilty describes his subjects as
disempowered straight white males who have survived the mistaken military engagements of the past.
The ‘luckiest’ way to be born
In contrast to the sombre portraits of war veterans are more lighthearted canvases depicting friends and family, or the “nearest and dearest males in [Quilty’s] life”. There are also a number of self-portraits in an exuberant, heavily gestural abstract expressionist style. Quilty describes the series as
a lighthearted yet dark gesture that examines [his own] role […] as a straight white male in […] society, which is probably the luckiest way to be born on […] earth at the moment […] There is a sense of the absurd […] the polarity of the easiest living position in society.
Elsewhere, the artist tells the Wall Street Journal that inserting humour and subverting the images of himself and his father “is a way of talking about [his] own awkwardness as a straight, white male”. He tells Wanderlister in an interview:
I am straight, white and male and for many parts of the world (and definitely in Australia) straight and white and male is the paradigm. It is a paradigm that often embarrasses my sense of myself.
Introspection and the Rorschach method
Even when he is painting other subjects or landscapes, a powerful sense of self-inquiry and introspection pervades Quilty’s works. A possible reason is his employment of a technique in which “the canvas is literally printed with the mirror image of its other half”. The technique was inspired by inkblot tests created by Hermann Rorschach, a 19th century psychologist and pioneer of mental health research. The doubling or mirroring evokes a mood of introspection and self-examination.
This method was used in the show’s headlining piece: a stunning twelve-panel landscape entitled Fairy Bower Falls Rorschach No.2 (2014). The work depicts the site of an early 19th century massacre of Aboriginal people in the southern highlands of New South Wales, whose “aesthetic charm belies the brutal history of murder and destruction”, according to Quilty’s statement.
In addition to creating an introspective atmosphere, use of the Rorschach technique means that the original painted image is both damaged and duplicated in the process of its creation. The phenomenon ingeniously “echo[es] the disturbance and violence the site has witnessed”, according to the press release, and for Quilty, the work is a
re-examination of the role of straight, white, males in the brutal history of British colonialisation.
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