Ben Quilty 1973 –
‘Ben Quilty’s painting is not polite. Smeared, smudged, caked and slapped onto the picture plane with bold virtuosity, his rich impasto works challenge assumptions.’2 Quilty is a social commentator through his largely abstract art and has passionately pursued several humanitarian causes. His works highlight social and moral conflicts he has with modern culture and events happening around the world.
Art has been a strong medium of expression for Quilty from an early age, beginning at high school. He went on to tertiary studies in the early 1990s, graduating with a Bachelor of Visual Arts from the University of Sydney.
Over the next 20 years or so, Quilty entered many art competitions and gradually became more prominent on the Australian art scene. He won some of those more prestigious prizes including the Archibald portrait prize for his painting of Australian artist Margaret Olley in 2011, after having entered and been a finalist in this competition seven times. This and his strong messaging about and questioning of social norms shown in his art subjects, was when he began to be more widely known and appreciated.
Quilty has explored ideas about what it is to be masculine and the attitudes of the Australian white male. He has incorporated his experiences of drugs, alcohol and dangerous mischief that were a part of his youth, and negative aspects of Australian culture and psychology more broadly. ‘His paintings depict rural Australia and some of the more challenging aspects of our culture and history. European settlement, the rites and rituals of masculinity, nationhood and the plight of Indigenous Australians are on-going themes.’3
Quilty has concerned himself with key events where he has highlighted humanity’s moral failings or attempts at meeting ethical obligations. He was appointed Australia’s official war artist in Afghanistan in 2011, spending three weeks on the frontline meeting soldiers to discuss their experiences. He became a strong supporter of clemency for the ‘Bali 9’ in 2014 who had been convicted of drug trafficking in Indonesia, and most of whom were executed in 2015. And in 2016, he was invited by the Greek government to visit Lesbos to see first-hand the issues affecting Syrian refugees who had fled to Europe from the conflict in their country.
All these events have populated his art in expressive, sometimes angry representations of humanity’s incapacity to deal with human crisis, injustice and suffering.
Quilty has been described as a person of ‘fierce moral energy’4 and his paintings often show a tender compassion for those subjects caught up in situations beyond their control.