The Becoming of Quilty – Artshow Review

Reflecting on Art Reviews

This year I’ve decided to share my thoughts and feedback on shows I will visit throughout the year. I hope it may encourage you all to go, get out and see more art. History has shown us that art is a reflection of the times, so I thought I would put that to the test. Do I like what I see, does it make me think about how I take in the work. Am I confronted, conflicted, confused or comforted? Will it impact my own art making?

How other artists translate the world, handle new mediums and seek out new ways to express themselves is a favourite topic of mine. I like people and art and how they work together. You can learn so much from a visit to an art show, even if it’s just taking in how others respond. And it is about a response. As a practicing artist your first lesson is to understand that your creative response (in what ever shape or form you choose, visual art, dance, music etc) is in part, a result of priming. All those things you dreamed of, remembered, the movies you watched, travels you made, all those encounters and conversations, all soak in an come out in your creative response. 

In these art reviews I am putting out to the world my thoughts on the art shows, how artists are influenced by the past, present and future and how that informs their work. My aim is that I will gain a better understanding of the sights, thoughts and sensibilities of the world I inhabit. That you, the reader may find some of this useful, will be just a bonus.



Ben Quilty has become Australia’s poster boy for ‘art now’. He is often referred to as the visual conscience of the country. We are lucky that he can vocalise his ideas as well as create them visually.

This show presents a survey of his work that launches us into the present. His talent has always been to visualise the vulnerabilities that most of us bury deep inside. In all of his investigations about the human condition he taps into our fragilities and strengths evolved through situation and choice.

The defiance room

In room one we are presented by the Quilty we know. I’m calling this the Defiance room. It’s a defiance of the human spirit not to be broken by the conditions we must endure. Those conditions that are both the making and breaking of us. From the Archibald winning portrait of Margaret Olley and Albert Namatjira, to the testosterone Torana, returned soldiers from Afghanistan to his own weary self portrait. These works display the affects of survival and refuge. They show the importance of defiance in the path of destruction. A defiance to stay strong and ‘don’t let the bastards’ get to you. They show a weathering of what that does to a soul.

Margaret Olley Portrait 2011, Torana No. 5 2003, Self-Portrait after Afghanistan 2012

Killing compassion

In room two we are moved to bigger issues. Quilty shows us his urgency on international issues. Through his paint he tries to find an understanding for lack of compassion and value of life. From his experiences in Lebanon, Lesbos and Serbia  and the immigration problems to his relentless battle for the lives of the Bali Nine we are left feeling as empty as the life jackets he paints. I am reminded of Fiona Hall’s 2014 work ‘All the King’s Men’ made of knitted shells of camouflage uniforms that hang like ghosts from the ceiling.

In this room we are reminded that bureaucracy does not see the human, the story, the struggle, the immensity of the damage done by a system that has killed it’s compassion and is ruled by numbers.

Left: Wall of Life Jackets. Right: Flowers for Heba 2016

A mirror of madness

In room three, dark with its theatrical lighting I am confronted with the epic tales squashed into the canvas. The Rorschach paintings are an unsettling reveal of spaces found and textures heightened. Referring to the inkblob studies developed by psychoanalyst Herman Rorschach in the 1920s where the images are folded and mirrored. What we see in these images gives us an insight into the human condition. Inspired by Quilty’s investigation into the murky past of Australian colonialism, the process reveals a place, where things are hidden and revealed, smudged out and disappeared. Listening to the medium, reading the spaces it makes and paying attention to the result makes this works a physical event. It brings us closer to our past and throws us into the ring. The physicality of paint beinging squashed, pulled and covered could be a metaphor for how the colonials treated the land and the people.

These works are captivating and alive. Like our history, there is always something more to uncover.

Irin Irinji 2018
Irin Irinji 2018, close up of image and texture.

The panic room

As I get to the last room I am confronted by some deliciously ugly scenes. My first reaction is that Mr Quilty has a lot to say. Much more to say than he has time. This room is about the Last Supper but more importantly it is about the world we live in ‘now’. And Mr Quilty shows us that he is overwhelmed by it. On the feature wall painted an acidic citrus yellow, it feels like lemon juice in your eye. This artwork is packed with icons of the past, of homages to artists who have endeavoured to delve deep into their subconscious, and go to places uncomfortable and agonising. We have an essence of Dali’s egg head, Bacon’s teethy scream and dismembered body parts swirl around a table that is evangelical white, headed by Trump donning a torpedo and a headless screaming viper to accompany him. I am sitting there watching the energy, the angst, the technique of cramming all that turbulance onto the canvas and wanting to tell Mr Quilty that I hear him. His anger and sadness and miscomprehension of the world we have landed in, and why enough of us don’t seem to be doing anything has been served. 

The Last Supper 2016

In his past work he has delved into our history and revealed its ugliness cloaked in a beautiful coat of paint, he has explored the loss and grief of lives cut short, lives been broken and wrung dry and painted those he admires and respects. Through a slap and a slosh of paint he has delivered a spectacular display of understanding and empathy. A voice for the voiceless.

Alas in this last room, it is Ben Quilty’s own nightmares, distress and anxieties, that he presents. As I sit and try and take in the loudness of these works, those around me all claim that the previous rooms were better and quickly leave. I want to drag them down on a seat and make them look, really look, and listen to what Mr Quilty has to say. I want them to try harder. I want them to give him, his voice, the respect that he helped us cultivate for the first peoples, the immigrants and those mislead.

From my observation, these new works are a culmination, an explosion of what it it feels like to be in Ben Quilty’s head. It’s a busy, congested place, thoughts are being pulled and pushed. Experiences are felt so deeply, there are patches so raw they are bleeding. I am sitting in the Panic Room and looking out at a world gone wrong.

I can’t help but see Sidney Nolan’s blue rabbit’s eye, his icon for his own self portraiture (and shock at the world), stare back at me in the images of Quilty’s eyeballs. They are all too wide open, shocked by what they have seen and almost too tired to sleep. The works are an incredible insomnia of where we are, and where Mr Quilty finds himself. Images merge and melt into the canvas like an overheated butcher’s shop. It is shocking and disjointed and over crowded. I am jolted to take notice, in awe of the dexterity of paint and overwhelmed by the complexity. Like a David Lynch film, or more so, like all of them playing at once, I am confronted by the weight of the artist’s load to bare. 

This voice once distinctly Australian, now booms from an international stage. We can hear and see where Ben Quilty’s frustrations lie. I see his rage within. I can feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. The pain and agony of a world gone crazy, of a world where we are too busy, too self consumed to notice what is going on. Ben has invited us to the table of catastophe and there is no going back. We are already too far down the rabbit hole. I want to ask him if he is ok. I want to thank him for bringing it all to a surface for us to see. I want to make others really look at what is before them.

Left: The Last Supper no.9 2017. Right: Pancreatitis (Kenny) 2018
The Last Supper 2017

In a world gone mad Ben Quilty has delivered a voice that many of us would find hard to articulate in any creative form. As a painter myself  I can only hope to ever capture a fragment of the emotion, understanding and energy that Mr Quilty has poured into his career.

In a speech made by Sir Ian McKellen he reads Kurt Vonnegut’s Letter’s about how to “Make Your Soul Grow”.  He discusses that creative expression is about ‘Becoming’. It’s about understanding oneself in the process and being surprised by what we find. Thanks to the Art Gallery of NSW’s thoughtfully curated show on Mr Quilty I feel like I have just witnessed the ‘becoming’ of a true craftman. I have watched the support act and witnessed the first act. I am on tender hooks and left hanging at intermission. I look forward to the second act, that is sure to be more revealing, intense and elaborate. I am prepared that is not going to be pretty, but I am guaranteed that it will be one hell of a ride and, Mr Quilty, I promise not to look away.

This show is a must see, on at the AGNSW til Feb, 2 2020. Developed by the Art Gallery of South Australia it is on a National tour presented with support from the Neilson Foundation as Principal Donor and Lipman Karas as National Sponsor.


This blog will discuss art shows and events that I have visited. All comments are purely personal opinion and no words are ever intended to offend in any way. My aim is for readers to get out and ‘Art About’ and build your own dialogue to what you have seen and experienced.
Comments are warmly welcomed… let’s keep the conversation open!

“ARTSHOW REVIEW” is written and produced by Visual Artist and Arts Educator, Kristine Ballard on
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© Kristine Ballard 2020