Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan
It was an eerie experience to view the large scale, dramatic works of Ben Quilty at the launch of After Afghanistan at Cairns Regional Gallery, the night before Anzac day.
The following morning I was looking into the eyes of veterans, wandering down the main tourist drag of Cairns or huddled together over beers on the sidewalk.The shadow of trauma detected in their eyes is also captured in the eyes of soldiers in Quilty’s striking series of large scale portraits, created during his stint as the official Australian war artist commissioned to ‘interpret the experiences of Australian Defence Force personnel’in Afghanistan during 2011.
After Afghanistan focuses on the body of work produced on Quilty’s return, dominated by large scale portraits of soldiers he met in the field, persuaded to pose for Quilty in his home studio back in Australia.There are also landscapes and fugue like motif paintings that interpret an intense experience,or emotion connected to a situation or the environment observed during Quilty’s stay. It is an overwhelming sense of loss, vunerability and the unspeakable that Quilty has depicted so honestly in thickly applied, viscous paint that confronts the viewer head on.
His style of painting is far removed from the traditional patriotic representations of warriors and war environments in both technique and subject. Strident, broken marks snarl across the canvas of the portraits, representative of the anguish, disconnection and frustration felt by the battle weary sitters, men in their prime stretched emotionally, some recovering from debilitating physical injuries.
The canvas is spare in places with restful white spaces contrasting with wild swathes of heavily troweled paint. Inky black blotches hover menacingly over the youthful face and chest of the subject in Trooper Luke Korman, Tarin Knot, 2012, (aerosol and oil on linen, diptych, 330 x 140 cm) Korman’s glassy eyes convey a compelling sense of what he had to endure in the ‘service’ of his country. The viewer is suddenly occupying his skin from within and it is an uncomfortable feeling.
Image: Ben QUILTY, Trooper Luke Korman, 2012 (aerosol and oil on linen, 190 X 140 cm)
These portraits inspire me to recollect on what I have read about war in the tradition of western poetry, prose and novels, and how although technologies of warfare have changed, not much has changed for idealistic young men full of bravado who made that ‘adventurous career move’ to join the armed forces and found themselves in a world ruled by chaos, death and destruction.
The soberness and darkness of the subject, and the use of dark ground in traditional portrait painting is referenced in the smooth, black backgrounds of some of Quilty’s portraits. In contrast to the sombre black ground, swathes of muted hues of rosy pink and grey warm the subjects naked bodies, signifying that the men portrayed are not just a broken shell, or a warlike robot; they are living breathing feeling humans. The vulnerability of these warrior men who have posed unguarded is humbling as well as unsettling. Troy Park head bowed, fists clenched, emanates bands of colours from his forehead Troy Park, after Afghanistan, 2012 (oil on linen, 190 x 140 cm) a Munch like scream of inner pain that reverberates in the immediacy of the broad, crude application of paint.
In Captain Kate Porter, after Afghanistan, 2012 (oil on linen, 180 x 170), the only female subject is instinctively self-protective and tough, covering her femaleness with crossed arms, hugging her upper body, head turned to the right with a closed defensive expression. In the portrait Air Commodore John Odie, after Afghanistan, no 3, 2012 (oil on linen, 190 x 140 cm) John Odie the patriarchal senior of the group is depicted with a definite air of grief and sadness with shoulders appearing slightly slumped and crumpled, signifying the wheight of his responsiblities.
Image: Ben QUILTY, Kandhar 2011 (oil on linen, 140 x 190 cm)
Quilty’s landscapes are haunted, hostile and foreboding. A black tangled mass floats like a malevolent spirit above a stark landscape in Kandahar 2011 (oil on linen, 140 x 190 cm). Death, rage, twisted limbs; nothing can breathe in that suffocating maelstrom. In contrast Transparent Might, after Afghanistan, 2011– after Arthur Streeton (oil and liquid paper on found board) is very still and references Arther Streeton’s work, Purple Noon’s Transparent Might (1896), (Streeton served as an official war artist in 1918), an iconic, traditional landscape that Quilty has emblazoned with the word Afghanistan, transposed like a scarification on the rugged, purple mountain range (painted over Streeton’s original Blue Mountains) above a blasted plain below. This conjures up the similarities and the transition between two wild and ancient landscapes, and infers romantic ideals of place and nationalism at work in the larger arena of power.
This superficial, idyllic landscape is a response to the realities of a hostile, scarred site that is literally ‘hell on earth now’ for the combatants and victims of this ‘interventionist’ war in Afghanistan. It a strange pleasure to walk around the exhibition and appreciate these works that are so beautifully layered, and yet so dark in exposing the terrible emotional wounds and physical vulnerability of Defence personnel who have confronted and continue to confront death and destruction on a daily basis.
This body of work really speaks to the power of art to connect us with another time, place and experience. Quilty’s insightful paintings inspire me to hope that one day on this planet no being, creature or place will have to experience the horror of war.
Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan is an Australian War Memorial Travelling Exhibition. Currently showing at the Cairns Regional Gallery, 26 April – 9th June 2013.