Ben Quilty: The Fast and Furious World of Ben Quilty - Art Collector

Issue 45, July - September 2008

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Made famous half a decade ago by testosterone charged paintings of his beloved torana, Ben Quilty has now moved to the country where his studio sits in the shadow of the big potato. His most recent works are massive inkblot style paintings of mashed human skulls, paint oozing masculine bravado, writes Tracey Clement.

Thirty four year old painter Ben Quilty’s CV reads like a step-by-step guide to making it big in the art scene: from ARTEXPRESS, the annual showcase of New South Wales’ most talented HSC students, to sell-out solo shows in six easy steps. On paper, Quilty makes it look so simple. His career appears to follow a narrow path aimed straight for success, but the real story is a wild ride along a circuitous route, which could have just as easily ended in a cul-de-sac of self-destruction.

Quilty grew up in Kenthurst, a semi rural, art-free zone in Sydney’s North West. Despite going straight from high school to the hip intellectual enclave of Sydney College of the Arts, Quilty spent his evenings and weekends back in the ‘burbs getting wasted and driving too fast and too far with his mates.

Quilty describes these antics as “rituals of self initiation”, a bunch of blokes “proving something to each other” by putting themselves in deliberate danger, just to see if they could survive. And even though he didn’t stop painting during this reckless period, Quilty says, “It never seemed like it would be more than a hobby, ever.”

In fact, after years of labouring during the day, working in kitchens at night and “getting nowhere fast” as an artist, Quilty decided to get a real job. He completed a second degree in design and re-skilled as a film editor, landing a spot in the Channel 7 newsroom. And there he might have stayed if he hadn’t turned back to his mispent youth for inspiration.

It took the sense of perspective that only time can provide for Quilty to realise that his own experiences of being a young man on the brink of violent, wilful implosion, wrestling with the complexities of masculinity, were the stories he had to tell. At the time, he says, “I thought I was just a rebel who should be in jail, I couldn’t see that anything creative could come of it.” In 2003, Quilty paid tribute to the drug-fuelled, testosterone-charged, car culture of his youth in a series of paintings depicting his beloved Holden Torana and his career took off at high speed.

These days Quilty is a happy family man with one small child and another on the way. They recently made a ‘treechange’ to the Southern Highlands, where Quilty’s studio is literally in the shadow of Robertson’s big potato. But he isn’t about to mellow out and start painting misty gum tree landscapes. Quilty’s most recent works are massive Rorschach inkblot style paintings, huge, perfectly symmetrical, mashed human skulls, all smeared gobs of paint oozing distilled masculine bravado.

For Ben Quilty, these images also evoke memories of childhood, as he points out, “Most young men’s lived experience of Rorschachs is from making art in kindy, not psychoanalysis.” It’s apt then that his inkblot skulls peer into the Aussie male psyche and find a certain contradictory and explosive infantilism; the arrogant omnipotence of a toddler coupled with a powerful urge to self-destruct.

New work by Ben Quilty will be on show this quarter at the Melbourne Art Fair from 30 July to 3 August 2008, and at GRANTPIRRIE in Sydney from 6 August to 30 August 2008. •



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