Quilty Confronts Syrian refugee crisis
Earlier this year the celebrated Australian artist Ben Quilty and the equally lauded author, Richard Flanagan, travelled to Europe and the Middle East to witness the refugee crisis in those regions.
They’ve since returned home and Ben Quilty’s new exhibition opening this week at the Art Gallery of South Australia is his interpretation of that experience.
Barbara Miller visited the artist in his studio.
See video here:
Also: Confronting mortality.
Artist Ben Quilty and author Richard Flanagan make a harrowing trip to Europe and the Middle East to witness first-hand the refugee crisis.
There are some fascinating insights into the creative process in these discussions between painter Ben Quilty and composer Andrew Ford.
Quilty is one of my favourite artists, and I recall Ford giving a talk to my Arts Journalism class at university in the early 90s.
So far I’ve listened to the first two recordings in the series and particularly liked the second – very moving: looking at the way an artist struggles to address difficult human experiences.
What can I say about the imminent deaths of two former drug smugglers who have cleary turned their lives around since they were sentenced years ago?
Pastor Andrew Chan is one of two Australians whose execution in Indonesia is imminent. About 10 years ago Chan was found guilty of helping organise the export of heroin from Indonesia to Australia. He was found to be the leader of a group afterwards known as the Bali 9, who were picked up at the airport as they were about to board a plane to Australia, They all had significant amounts of heroin bound to their bodies.
Chan and a co-organiser Myuran Sukamaran were given the death penalty while the others had lengthy prison sentences.
Since that time Chan became a follower of Jesus and trained to be a Pastor to fellow inmates within the jail. Sukamaran turned to art and has been studying for a fine arts degree through an Australian university. Within the jail he has run art classes for current and former inmates.
There is absolutely no doubt that both men have turned their lives around and have become valuable assets to the jail that has been their home for a decade, helping to change the lives of other inmates just as they turned their own lives around.
But recently Indonesia changed its President and he’s been trying to show his authority by coming down hard on those found guilty of drug crimes – irrespective of any demonstrated rehabilitation.
Now after ten years, the new President has demanded that the 10 year old death sentences be carried out. It seems that will happen some time this week.
For more details of the current situation see the following:
The Indonesian President, who demands the death of these men.
On the weekend we had our third viewing of the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the National Gallery in Canberra. Gloria wasn’t impressed with anything the first time she saw it and her view hasn’t changed through repeat viewing. I have to confess that I haven’t enjoyed it either after that initial visit and the excitement of seeing some things for the first time (i.e. works of de Kooning and Frankenthaler).
I noticed that several paintings in the exhibition had been donated to the gallery by artists’ families and I’ve developed a theory that reflects upon the standard of a lot of work held by galleries such as the NGA in Canberra. I suspect that after the death of a well-known artist, their families sort through the paintings now in their possession. They keep the ones they like and sell those with clear merit that will realise big money at auction. The rest, the un-liked and those with less commercial appeal, are donated to public galleries that can’t afford to refuse the offer of free paintings by significant artists, no matter how poorly they represent an artist’s catalogue of work.
But maybe that’s my over cynical side coming through.
On this visit I had the unexpected opportunity to see an exhibition of work by Albert Tucker. I’m part way through reading a biography of Tucker written by Janine Burke, so it was interesting to see so many of his paintings in the one place. They were part of his Images of Modern Evil series, a very disturbing collection that he painted during the Second World War.
The thing that I found most interesting about these paintings was the way an apparent simplicity of technique created the impression of something much more complex. How a few simple brush strokes gave an illusion of detail and how so much was expressed through so little. That ability seems to be the signifying feature of a “real” artist. Is that skill learned technique or is it something more instinctive?
The paintings are very dark (literally as well as figuratively) works with symbolic, sordid and unpleasant portrayals of humanity as perceived through Tucker’s experience of wartime Melbourne. I read the following explanation of what was behind this series:
“He was disgusted, but inspired by scenes of Melbourne’s nightlife, of a city he felt demonstrated a collapse of simple morality. He was shocked and outraged by images of schoolgirls trotting home to reappear wearing skimpy miniskirts made from Union Jacks and American flags, ready for a wild night in St. Kilda with the drunken American and Australian soldiers.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Tucker_(artist)#Influences).
In many of these paintings Tucker portrays people (mainly women) with a tooth filled, smiling crescent of vivid lipstick-red, topped with a triangular pig-like snout and long-lashed eyes or sometimes a single eyeball. A few of the paintings were grotesquely explicit in their depiction of the “female” body. They are definitely not paintings that anyone could “like” or find aesthetically appealing – but they effectively live up to the title of the series, being images of the some of the worst aspects of human nature and activity. While those aspects are often recognised and (as with Tucker’s example) vividly depicted in art, rarely is the cause of the darkerside of humanity explored. And even more rarely are possible solutions addressed.
Painting has been difficult over the last couple of weeks. I’ve not been happy with anything I’ve done since I finished the paintings illustrated here:
Most of my time was taken up painting the one below, to which I’ve given the title “Prophet”. But I’m not happy with it. I quite like the colour and texture of the face, but not the features. Around the face I’ve included stencilled phrases from scripture, but I’m not happy with those I chose to include. They give the impression that the face represents Jesus Himself – but that was never the intention.
(this was photographed at an angle to catch the light on the stencilled words – the shape of the face therefore appears a little distorted.)
Until I decide what to do next, I’ll put this one aside and start to try something different.
I think the attempt at a portrait came about because I’ve recently seen a couple of documentaries about Ben Quilty, a young Australian artist who recently had a short stint as a war artist in Afghanistan. I’d seen him previously in some tributes to the late Margaret Olley whose portrait he had painted, winning him the Archibald Prize.
Quilty isn’t known for delicate and detailed work. He makes a lot of use of pallet knives to apply thick layers of paint squeezed not from tubes but from large cartridges more like a building product than an artist’s material. Even though he applies paint like a bricklayer applies mortar, the results have a detail capturing much more than the physical appearance of his subject. He somehow manages to capture their heart, their thoughts and their emotions.
My own attempts at portraiture have a long way to go – but I’ll keep returning and giving it another go. One day I’ll get it right (I hope).
See this excellent article about Quilty
Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto the moon has died and because of that the media have done a little nostalgic look back to the event that made him so famous.
The space race was going on during my childhood. When I was most impressionable, one of man’s most impressive ventures was being enacted. The thrill of manned space “exploration” was still untarnished by familiarity. It was heading towards something exciting that had never been done before – then, not long after Armstrong’s foot hit the surface of the moon, the decline began. People started losing interest.
Only two missions later the space race had lost a lot of its public appeal– until an on-board explosion turned into a potential tragedy and brought attention back to men somewhere between the earth and the moon.
However this time the focus was changed. No longer was the challenge to get them to the alien landscape of the moon – it was to get them back to their own planet safely so they could set their footprints upon earth’s surface again.
Until the explosion, the media had shown little interest in Apollo 13.
I remember following those early missions. I remember the excitement of that first moon landing, and the expert observers predicting man would set foot on mars within the next decade. How quickly the decline set in and exposed the over optimism of those predictions. Not only was the mars venture soon ruled out – interest in the moon was lost. The achievement of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins in Apollo 11 became a peak in mankind’s history instead of a genuinely world changing springboard to greater achievements. It remained a reached destination instead of becoming the first step of a greater journey.
Part of the experience of those moon missions was recorded by Alan Bean, “the only artist to have walked on the moon” (http://www.alanbeangallery.com/ ). I now have quite a substantial library of art books, but one of the very first was Bean’s Painting Apollo, illustrating many of his paintings related to the Apollo missions.
When I bought it my interest was more in their depiction of the Apollo missions than in “art”. However I found some of his painting technique fascinating – how he added significance to the texture to the paintings by using the sole imprint of the boots he wore on the moon’s surface, as well as imprints of tools used on the moon. Some works contain traces of moon dust mixed with the paint as well as fragments of artefacts associated with Bean’s Apollo 12 mission.
Here is a brief video outlining some of his surface preparation prior to applying paint:
Here are some photos of the progress of my most recent project.
With my paintings I’ve usually been so carried away with the desired final image that I’m left with a flat, boring background that needs a lot of attention. Then it’s often not easy to fix up the background without compromising what I’ve already done. The division between the two can then seem contrived.
This time I tried to start with a background, building up layers of text and symbol in the beginning instead of trying to add something later.
I wanted to try this after seeing Heather Carr’s blog (http://heatherunderground.com/2012/01/30/flora-bowley-rocks/ ).
Here are the first stages of the background:
While working on the background I played around with ideas suitable for the eventual subject of the painting: such as this small sketch:
This idea was later added to the canvas using diluted flesh colour paint, highlights of red and detailed with a shiny pearl-white. The result was quite impressive from a distance if seen in the right light, but up close looked featureless and insipid.
I’ve now done more work to fix the “insipidness” by adding darker flesh tones, but haven’t yet been able to take a suitable photograph. Additional photos of progress will have to wait for another post.
I’ve been reading a biography of Australian artist Margaret Olley.
During her early life she became an alcoholic. Eventually she recognised how this was affecting her and she sought help to overcome it.
One of the first people she confided in after seeking help was a church minister. After telling him of what she was doing he invited her to have a chat about which Olley said:
“…he started going on about how we are all conceived in sin, it was too much for me. I don’t believe in burdening people with guilt like that.”
Personally I have difficulty in understanding how this could burden anyone with guilt. Knowing that I’m no worse than anyone else – knowing that ALL are conceived in sin would be like a weight of guilt lifted OFF rather than a burden placed upon.
We are all in the same boat. I’m no worse than the next person. I’m no guiltier than anyone else.
Strangely I see that as good news. It means there is no less hope for me than for anyone else.
That’s a wonderful place to begin. Others are no more deserving of God’s favour or mercy than I am. I’m no less deserving than them.
NONE of us deserve it but it’s offered to ALL.
Our unworthiness isn’t the primary issue. More important is God’s mercy and His willingness to free us from the sin that EVERYONE is burdened with prior to experiencing His mercy through faith in Jesus.
If we experience a “burden of guilt” we can deal with it in two contrasting ways. We can resist God, suppress the guilt, cauterising our conscience in the process – or we can acknowledge our guilt and turn to God for the forgiveness and cleansing He has offered.
The only burden we need to shoulder is the choice between our own way and God’s way.