Ben Quilty has trafficked in macho angst for his whole career so his selection as an official war artist by the Australian War Memorial was a bit of a masterstroke. The Sydney-born artist, whose portrait of Margaret Olley claimed the Archibald in 2011, was sent to Afghanistan for three weeks in October of that year to meet with Australian Defence Force personnel. Quilty sketched and took photos of the servicemen and women but more importantly he bonded with them.
Back at his studio in the Southern Highlands, Quilty tried making paintings based on the photographs but was unhappy with the results. So he invited some of the returned soldiers to visit and sit for him. Several he asked to appear nude in poses expressing their memories and feelings, stripping away the jingoistic armour of uniforms and weaponry. Some lie in twisted poses reminiscent of the work of Lucien Freud.
Quilty’s technique – a colourful mess of loosely aligned splodges that coalesces into form when you stand back from it – is perfectly apt for portraits of shellshocked people trying to keep it together. These are great pictures.
Three clothed portraits of retired Air Commodore John Oddie offer a haunting study in character. Quilty concentrates his impasto on Oddie’s balding head and face, leaving the body only vaguely sketched in shallow strokes. We see a man who is both fleshily present and psychologically absent. Oddie (among others) describes the experience of sitting for Quilty as being akin to therapy – the artist has captured things the sitters were trying to hide. The fearsome eyes of a female soldier in a nude portrait reveal that it’s not just her modesty that she’s trying to cover up.
A front-on portrait of an emotionally scarred Trooper Daniel Spain is mirrored with a blank space around which black paint is encroaching. The symbolism is blunt but effective. Quilty paints a void like it’s a dynamic thing, gnawing its way to the centre of the canvas. A more expressionistic work depicts Quilty’s feelings about being on an airstrip in Kandahar. His dread appears as a black and brown morass floating above the ground like a Lovecraftian nightmare creature.
Savage explosions of paint can’t help but bring to mind the viscerality of combat. These are powerful works in which fear and violence are both message and medium. After Afghanistan is a must see.
Alongside the exhibition will be a free panel discussion, featuring Ben Quilty and Wendy Sharpe, on The Art of War, Wed Mar 20, 6-8pm, in National Art School's Cell Block Theatre.