In launching Ben Quilty’s career spanning exhibition Dr Michael Brand CEO of the Art Gallery Of New South Wales described Quilty’s art as being about paint which is squished and swirled like coloured mud and yet emerges as deeply personal and poignant.

This is highlighted in his portraits where the sitter seems completely relaxed. Exhibition co sponsor Jason Karas of the legal firm  Lipman Karas commented that what struck him about Quilty’s work was its authenticity. It traversed public history.

Ben Quilty has himself said, ‘”my work is about how to live in this world. It is about compassion and empathy but also about anger and resistance.”

The exhibition spans fifteen years of art making, his intimate portraits, his sombre reflections on injustice, and his evocations of haunted Australian landscapes, the latter being peopled by the ghosts of murdered indigenous people by colonialists

In a rare collaboration of three major art galleries relating to just one Australian artist, the last whistle stop of its tour of southern Australia is the Art Gallery Of New South Wales, Quilty’s home town and state. Previously held at the Art Gallery Of South Australia and the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, it has attracted some 400,000 people. It was curated by Dr Lisa Slade of the Art Gallery of South Australia who came to Sydney to guide the media through some of the aspects of Quilty’s work. In this endeavour she was assisted by Art Gallery of New South wales head curator of International Art Justin Paton as well as Quilty himself. He was thrilled to be opening in Sydney as he regarded the Gallery “as the church where I go to worship.”.

Quilty’s upward trajectory can best be illustrated by the fact that his artwork first appeared in Art Express in 1991 to his Archibald Prize winning portrait of Margaret Olley in 2011. Ben Quilty heard a viewer at that auspicious 1991 exhibition remarking that children’s artwork should not be hung on or displayed in the gallery’s walls. Quilty went to remark that both he and art express were still here!

If the accompanying book sets out what was displayed in the full exhibition at the Art Gallery Of South Australia, then the New South Wales Gallery’s exhibition seems to be an edited version due to a limitation of space.

The exhibition is held in four ‘rooms’ divided into roughly four themes. The first space deals with the artist’s early reflections upon the rites of passage traversed  by young Australian men, early landscapes and portraits.

The second ‘room’ deals with his experience as an official war artist in Afghanistan and his visits to Lebanon, Afghanistan and Serbia with author Richard Flanagan. They both  also visited Syrian refugee camps. Quilty then went on to meet  the Bali Nine pair Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.  A gruesome self portrait shows the effect these travels had on him.

The third ‘room’ comprises three giant landscapes which Dr Lisa Slade labelled the Rorschach paintings from a psychological test whereby a blob of ink on a paper is folded in half by a patient and the mirror image created thereby is interpreted by the patient.

Quilty’s landscapes  appear to be  divided in half as mirror images but if you look closely one half is of an ideal landscape whilst the other half subtly insinuates the bloody history that landscape has witnessed. The most abstract of the landscapes is dominated by dark blue, red and black slashes of colour and is a response by the artist to the massacres of indigenous peoples in the southern highlands, where he currently lives.

The last ‘room’ with the theme of the Last Supper are his most recent paintings, painted in 2017. They are a response to Quilty’s view of today’s world and comprises of deformed ogres, bared teeth, writhing figures and if you look closely at the table and guests of the Last Supper itself you will see the menacing figure of Donald Trump.

Exhibition curator Dr Lisa Slade said that “the exhibition represents the portrait of a socially engaged contemporary artist who is committed to art’s capacity to instigate change.”

I asked Ben Quilty why so many of his paintings had a large eye in them. I surmised that the eye seemed to reflect a look of sadness or sometimes rebuke. No, said Quilty, “i just wanted to inject some form of humanity in the more harsh and abstract paintings.”

The exhibition simply entitled ‘QUILTY’, runs at the Art Gallery Of New South Wales runs until the 2nd February, 2020.

All pics by Ben Apfelbaum