Ben Quilty: Spoils of War
by Steve Proposch
It is tempting to label Ben Quilty’s latest works in After Afghanistan, at Castlemaine Art Gallery until 15 April 2016, ‘super’ expressionist. The subjects of these portraits are vulnerable, yet powerful. They leave you with no doubt that Quilty has fulfilled his role as Official War Artist admirably.
This exhibition is the result of the artist’s three-week tour across Afghanistan in October 2011. While Quilty’s purpose was to record and interpret the experiences of Australians deployed as part of Operation Slipper in Kabul, Kandahar, and Tarin Kot in Afghanistan and at Al Minhad Airbase in the United Arab Emirates, the artist soon discovered that his conversations and experiences with many Australian servicemen and women left him with an overwhelming desire to tell their stories.
Quilty’s tribute on ANZAC Day 2015 is an indicator of how personally this experience has affected the artist. He spoke not only to those who did not return from Afghanistan and their grieving families, but also to “the young men and women who live amongst us who have paid so dearly and will quietly wear the thick cloak of trauma for many years to come …”.
In Afghanistan Quilty took photographs and made sketches of his subjects, many of which posed them squinting into the sun in an effort to suggest that some of the hardships of war were close at hand. These were the works he brought home to his studio, located in the town of Robertson in the NSW Southern Highlands, at the end of the tour, where he struggled with how to do justice to the intense emotional material he had garnered.
Over the following months and years Quilty’s military subjects visited his studio during periods of leave to pose for the paintings now showing in After Afghanistan. The gift of this method is in the full, unrestrained expression of the paint. With slabs and daubs and drags and scrapes of very thick paint, Quilty forms an expert likeness of the subject while leaving the emotion and impact of war – the human price tag – visceral and exposed.
The emotional impact of war is palpable in the faces and bodies of these returned soldiers, all painted with subjects in the nude. By choosing her own pose, Captain Kate Porter has added to the strength and depth of her character, which bounces off the canvas. What Quilty has captured is the intensity of her experience. While there is little expository narrative in the exhibition, the pain is most definitely in the paint; every line and smear. The vast dark void that partially obscures the face of Trooper Luke Korman, for example, suggests a deep and dark experience hiding just beneath the surface of this otherwise young-looking man with sad eyes.
Quilty’s work here is so interesting because it reflects one of the common journeys of the artist: revelation. Through the alchemy of art, Quilty has gifted his subjects with a safe, reflective place in which they may look at all of this stuff; this emotional turmoil they are experiencing. He has given their pain a language.
In terms of these soldiers’ own healing, this is a pretty extraordinary thing to be offered. Commander Oddie, for example, shows an increasing consciousness of himself in his progressive comments on the paintings. The impact of war on Oddie clearly became more obvious to the subject as he watched the painting progress. And it is easy to see why. Each painting in this exhibition captures the sense of the individual. Each one is a personal story of war. Even the couple of large canvases depicting messed-up armoured vehicles that are metaphors for sudden violence and loss of function, also tell a story of lost lives, waste, bravery, and helplessness.
As an artist employed on such a deep project, Quilty needed to go into this thing with a plan; an idea. Armed with this idea, you get there, and you execute your idea as best as you can in the field, taking many photographs, making many sketches, and talking to many people, hearing and recording their stories. You then return to the studio where you create that idea, and most likely you will find it falling short of your expectations, because all of the other things that you saw and felt when you were there that couldn’t be sketched or recorded are missing. The minutiae of that experience is where the work comes from. It requires the revelation of being in that place, not in your comfortable, safe studio in Robertson.
Fortunately for Quilty, the soldiers he painted shared their stories of both before and after the war with him. He knows them both as soldiers, and as more than soldiers. Appropriately, Quilty feels a strong need to honour those stories through both his process and the work itself. He has no doubt succeeded on both counts.
The Castlemaine Art Gallery has employed a bold presentation for this show. The central Higgins Gallery has been painted black, with glossy black sideboards. This is where the tonally darker paintings hang. It allows the darkness of the emotional space to move beyond the frame of the work. The Stoneman Gallery at the end is pearly white, and displays the lighter works such as Tarin Cox, Hilux to great effect. Curated by Laura Webster of the Australian War Memorial, this is the first ‘rock n’ roll’ exhibition the Castlemaine Art Gallery has hosted since the transition of Jennifer Kalionis to Director, and equates to a bold expression of her style also.
Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan, Castlemaine Art Gallery, 15 January – 15 April 2016. An Australian War Memorial Touring Exhibition, proudly sponsored by Thales. See or castlemainegallery.com or awm.gov.au