Skull Rorschach #2, 2008
oil Rorschach on linen
Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane
Private collection, Sydney
For audiences of Ben Quilty, the Rorschach images will continue to represent a pivotal moment in the career of an artist whose technical and intellectual capacity commands greater and greater presence with each outing.
From early showings at GrantPirrie in mid-2000, Ben Quilty’s unabashed use of oil on linen was instantly regarded as a definitive practice. But here, in the inverse print of a skull painted first in signature strokes of neat paint from the tube then swiftly transferred to a clean canvas, the artist reveals a will to consistently interrogate the act of painting itself.
This image has been produced on a scale, more intimate than is usually associated with the artist. Its size allows for a visceral appreciation of the doubled image and the subtle variations that transmute from the right to left side canvas. The skull, in bright silhouette, is a masterful work of texture, its perfectly calibrated palate giving a sense of velocity or explosion of the cranial ridges.
This is one of very few examples of Quilty’s Rorschach to be joined along a front side seam. Where dual heads usually explode from a common neck, or sit cheek-to-cheek, these two skulls face each other in a powerful visual metaphor.
The title of the work "Skull Rorschach 2" alludes to the well known psychoanalytic tradition of Rorschach inkblots: silhouetted mirror images that are used by the analyst to trigger associative thoughts in their patients. However, this approach to image production also recalls the childhood technique of 'butterfly paintings', and the artist has pointed out that "Most young men's lived experience of Rorschach's is from making art in kindy, not psychoanalysis."
The skull is a motif returned to time and again by Quilty, his rigorous approach to practice turning its attention to questions of masculinity and mortality, the throes of young nationhood and identity.
Famously inspired by Arthur Streeton's nationalistic directive that an artist should choose a subject that is local and familiar to them, in 2002 Ben Quilty produced a sell-out show of bold paintings depicting the beloved Torana that sat in his yard. Since then, Quilty's emphatically expressive work has continued to command attention, and the acclaimed artist frequently exhibits in national and international exhibitions and art fairs. His work is held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Museum of Contemporary Art and numerous corporate and private collections. He won the prestigious Doug Moran Portrait Prize in 2009, and was a multiple finalist in the Wynne and Archibald Prize, before winning the Archibald in 2011 with his tender portrait of Margaret Olley. In October 2011 Quilty travelled to Afghanistan as an official war artist.
Important solo exhibitions include 'Trigger-Happy: Ben Quilty's Brave New World', Drill Hall Gallery Australian National University, Canberra, 2013; 'After Afghanistan', National Art School Sydney then touring nationally, 2013; 'Inhabit', Art Gallery Of South Australia, Adelaide, 2011; 'Ben Quilty LIVE!', The University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Victoria, 2009 and, 'Ben Quilty: Death-wish', Newcastle Region Art Gallery, Newcastle, 2007.
Quilty grew up in the outer suburbs of Sydney and his history as a hard-drinking, hard-living youth is an important part of the artist's mythology. He says "I'm trying to use that weird dark behaviour for something a bit more positive." However equally significant to the artist's biography is the double-degree in fine arts and design that he received from the Sydney College of the Arts and the University of Sydney, as well as further study he undertook in 1996 in Aboriginal History at Melbourne's Monash University. Nick Mitzevich, the director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, has said: "Quilty is not a painter who sits on his laurels and accepts his success. He is constantly reinvigorating both his subjects and his techniques." Ben Quilty now lives in Robertson in the NSW Southern Highlands, and his large studio sits in the shadow of the Big Potato. Ben Quilty is represented by Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane and Pearl Lam Galleries, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.