The following is a judgment of Ben Quilty's work from his Australian War Memorial Commission. While I haven't seen the works yet I'm responding to documentation of the exhibition from television and newspaper coverage. I'll get to see the show in the last days of its opening but until then I've decided to write done a Part One of my reading of this work.
This new series of works is markedly different from the rest of Quilty's oeuvre in two ways: they were commissioned, and they're painted from life. The typical Ben Quilty is a thickly painted image that resembles, in composition, a snapshot photograph, a typical part of his atelier.
For a long time I've been critical of artists, like Quilty, who repaint photographs in a painterly and idiosyncratic style. I don't judge it as a lack if skill so much as slavishly obeying pictorial rules governed by camera optics. I also think that photographers can skillfully master the medium of photography and use these aspects better an a painter can, and that a painter's practice can be more open, representationally speaking. In short painting can do other things and shouldn't be restricted to the world of photography. Also in this age the digital snapshot is ubiquitous and the saturation of the digital photo all over social media has made this a banal way of seeing, which is what I think artists should avoid.
Quilty's After Afghanistan is a perfect example of what can happen when the painter puts away their camera. In this series the compositions are strikingly different from anything that he's done so far. The paintings hint at the process of their making - marks that suggest one direction are abandoned and re-incorporated down the track as extraneous but meaningful forms. These portraits from life reveal the time between a blank canvas and a rich intimate knowledge of his subject. Each mark indicates time taken with the subject, observations made and a deeper level of intimacy.
In a recent episode of ABC's Australian Story - On the Warpath, Quilty explains that he took photos whil in Afghanistan but that they were too "hollow" to capture the gravity of what he had seen and what the soldiers had lived through. Rather than work from photos the artist arranged for the soldiers to pose for him while he painted them from life. During these sittings some of the models discussed their military experiences while the artist painted.
Immediately these portraits became one-dimensional. They were now portraits of victims - victims of trauma. Victimized by their experience at war and further victimized by the malicious neglect of of the Australian Defence Force. As a result, I think most viewers will read these alternate realisms that have come from the life painting as disfigurements from the traumas of war. Because of the psychologically weighted and ambiguously handled forms in these paintings, the viewer has become anchored by Quilty's activist rhetoric to interpret the subject of the paintings as the injuries and traumas of war rather than as the duration of an intimate encounter expressed by the visual study of a figure in oils. Quilty's activist spin inhibits the viewer from seeing nuanced strategies in representing the human form and from thinking about what we expect to see in a picture of a person or self. We are taken back to the idea that departures from geometric or optical perspective signifies a derranged individual - like Albert Tucker's portraits of soldiers from the Second World War.
Also, I don't trust that Quilty is in a position to make these accusations at the ADF. He's spoken to some of the subjects of his paintings, who he says have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, who have told him that the army is doing nothing to help them. He reads a testimonial from a returned serviceman who states that they have been unfairly discharged after seeking help from the army for their psychological scars. He doesn't mount an investigative case of the issue and his accusations are unconvincing. Quilty as army affiliate is not a suitable authority on this issue. His involvement with the army does not position him, as far as I can see, as an authority on the well-being of military personnel. His evidence for the army's lack of care is evidenced by a handful of anecdotal examples from personnel who believe or feel that they've been neglected. He hasn't, nor was he in a position to, investigate any cases of neglect beyond the testimonials of traumatized servicemen who felt neglected. The only evidence I can see is that there are servicemen who feel mistreated and I think more questions need to be asked before anyone can say that they were mistreated. My issue here is not whether army personnel are being suitably cared for or not, but that Quilty is not in a position to report on it.
Nevertheless, the work is now a prop for a media discussion on the health and well-being of soldiers. This new spin will help to get the word out about the exhibition, but it does so at the cost of the viewing experience. The paintings will now be seen as an artifact of controversy, which will ultimately obscure the good work that went into making them. I fear that it will reinforce the dominance of photographic realism as signifying health and wholeness while pictorial oddities signify the grotesque and maligned. I expect that the commentaries of these works will continue to reinforce the idea that these soldiers are broken and twisted, rather than emphasizing the painting's true strengths - the sensitive treatment of the human figure when painted from life.
This indicates a bigger problem in the art world - that the story behind the artwork is considered to be more important than the artwork itself. Artists labour to explain the significance of their work in statements, reflections, press-releases and exegeses to justify for audiences to pay attention to the work fearing that the work won't stand up on its own. I think this happens because often times the work can't stand on its own but in Quilty's case I think it does. And I wish he'd let it.
'On the Warpath' aired on ABC's Australian Story on March 25, 2013