Ben Quilty retrospective, Art Gallery of SA, 5 April 2019
When Mr Quilty surveyed the exhibition of his oeuvre at AGSA, he said: “I bawled my eyes out when I first walked in.” We know how he feels.
We felt we had been too rude, discussing Quilty’s qualifications to judge the Archibald Prize: we had described his work thus: “Ben specialises in lurid smudges involving lashings of impasto.”
Alas, one brief viewing of the works on display here more than confirmed our initial opinion: sloppy daubs full of empty emotion but bereft of technique.
Propagandizing does not automatically = bad art, of course, but it is, so to speak, a red flag. Take Captain James Cook’s* awkwardly-drawn faces morphing into a demonic version of the artists’s own guilt, for example (above). The point is clear, but also cheap and useless. The paintings are poor: Cook looks more like Alexander Hamilton on the ten dollar greenback, and the descending images are straight from Dorian Gray.
There are some things to like here, such as the lady in the pink dress (above), and Quilty’s large Rorschach-blot landscapes (which are, once again, not introspective but self-indulgently cathartic).
But a lot of the offerings are pale imitations of Francis Bacon in his butcher-boy mode (see above) crossed with Ralph Steadman, perhaps with the slapdash, meaty style of Lucien Freud hovering influentially in the background.
His friend Richard Flanagan describes Quilty as “a gentle man inclined to folly and passion, not infrequently at the same time.”
Our problem with him is that passion is not a substitute for taste, and folly cannot excuse lazy compassion. With Quilty, we get not an open mind, but an empty mind: a facile display of virtue and vicarious empathy with the likes of unfortunate indigenes and illegal arrivistes. This is all very well, but what end is served?
He doesn’t lack talent: he lacks brains, and a willingness to make the kind of self-sacrifice which is the precursor of great art. To paraphrase Louise Corbin, Quilty has forsworn the hard slog that artistic creation entails and allowed his meaningless fumbling to be weaponised by those who seek to turn western civilisation into an irrational confusion.
We understand that at high school, a career adviser suggested he study economics instead of art. Quilty now says this exhibition is for that “dickhead.” But based on his temporal success and his place in the Post Eternal Phase,** it almost looks like the counsellor was right.
Anyway, judge for yourself: Adelaideans have ’til June 2.[* Cookie is viewed by some as Australia’s Hernán Cortéz.] [** Post Eternal Phase: Visual Art forgotten as soon as one turns away.]