Q&A with Ben Quilty - Art Collector

Ben Quilty, The Last Supper no. 6, 2017. Oil on linen, 265 x 202cm. Courtesy the artist and Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane.

Ben Quilty talks with Art Collector ahead of his upcoming solo exhibition, The Last Supper, opening at Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane on 27 May.

Your portraiture is striking in its dialogue between the internal and external. Emotion, the subconscious and appearance amalgamate on the parts of the subject, artist and audience. How has this informed your works in The Last Supper?

Most of the paintings in this show began as simple paintings of human models, a middle aged lady born in Germany, a young woman from an art school life model register, an elderly disabled lady and friend of a friend, an old Spanish man and long term life model and my young artist friend and studio assistant Liam Ambrose. Their image is the armature for a channeling of everything else onto the painting. So much is happening to the world. All aspects of successful democracy seems to me to be seriously under threat. The people who modelled talked to me about their own fears and then I added mine.

Could you expand on the exhibition’s title? Why did you choose it?

The Last Supper suggests a parable of paranormal enormity, maybe? The first of these paintings was of a life model who was off her head. The debauchery of the model spoke to the problems of the planet and suggests that the people in charge are not only shirking their responsibilities but actively destroying the place.

Ben Quilty, Self portrait at 43, 2016. Oil on linen, 142 x 132 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane.

Surrealism is underlined by the tension of the unreal as both an escape from reality but also directly influenced by it. Do you see surrealism as a way to navigate the political?

'The political' is absurd! Making art that flirts with insanity might just start to explore notions of the world's political framework. The success of a narcissistic ego maniac like Donald Trump needs to be met with a level of unhinged surrealism, don't you think? I hope that my work will find a more stable level of visual language as I understand the world's predicament better.

To the extent that art exists in a world where political leaders, corporations and even individuals are seemingly unaccountable due to greed and apathy, do you see the role of the artist as shifting from the one asking the questions to the one answering them?

Woah, that's a serious suggestion, although I could guess that artists have always offered answers and simultaneously asked questions. As the planet's space runs out, fractious human relationships demand that questions are possibly answered just as fast as they're asked. All artists are activists, that's our fundamental role, but in saying that I'd guess there's always answers for almost all questions in beauty.

Are your paintings in The Last Supper a cathartic release for contemporary trauma and cynicism, or do they offer hope?

Both, I hope. But I fear that after only just over 100 days of the Trump Presidency they're not much more than observation.

Marcus James

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