JESS – There’s a popular narrative out there about you and your early days of having been a bit of a ratbag, drinking, drugs, driving fast cars. That gives me the impression that you were well ensconced in a really specific kind of masculinity. What was it about you that led you to take a step towards pursuing the arts? Which I imagine would have been unpopular among your peers at the time?
BEN – When I won the Whiteley scholarship I went to Paris and I had already made the Torana paintings. And when I got back, the Sydney Morning Herald had a headline like “Ben Quilty returns from Paris in a Torana.” That’s how that thing about me came up. And so people started saying, “Tell me about your youth.” But before I won the scholarship I studied feminist theory, I did a full two-unit course in Aboriginal culture and history. I was pretty rounded. I played music. I was at times off the rails as well, but lots of my young peers were. I don’t think I was any different. People wanted a headline and I had no control over it. I remember reading that and thinking I’ve made a huge body of work, some really loose oil drawings on beautiful linen—for the first time in my life I could afford good materials—and no one said a word about it. It was all about the Torana paintings. It was this kind of quirk or joke that I had gone there and made Torana paintings, which I hadn’t. They were part of the application that Margaret Olley judged me to win. From then on it was really lazy journalism, people just kept going on. Maybe it’s an interesting story, people don’t expect it, I was meant to come from a yellow corn field in France, not the north-western suburbs of Sydney. But I always knew I loved art. I never stopped. I went straight from high school to art school because when I was pushed to say what am I going to study at university I didn’t want to study anything except art or drama, or something in the humanities.
I think in Australia there is a tendency to have a limited understanding of what art can be—especially from an Australian. Art can be many, many things from anyone in any other country but in Australia it can’t be high-minded, it can’t really push beyond the common tropes that we have here.
That’s a really good point. If I was making the paintings that I make now, which are far more sophisticated and interesting, and far more multi-dimensional. If I had shown these works back then, it would have been dismissed, overlooked. It’s an arc that helps people understand, but you have to take the audience with you. In a sense the Toranas were just a fun way in. I’ve made shows before then. I had an exhibition on King Street in Newtown of little landscape paintings that I’d made in Paris. A whole show of it. That show went quite well but it got no press. And then I made the Torana paintings and I was astounded at the press they got, it was ridiculous. I knew they were good paintings but I didn’t understand the subject matter. Now I’ve tried to work out why I did that subject, what was I doing, and it came down to reading a piece by Arthur Streeton about looking in our own backyard in trying to find an Australian identity. I thought that was a really interesting point. Stop looking at Paris,stop looking for these esoteric otherworldly art subjects, and look at an art subject right here.And I tell students this all the time now, “You should look immediately around you. You can do a painting of a computer.” Italian Renaissance painting? No. Because we live in 2019.
You have reached this level of fame and there has been article after article and broadcast after broadcast about you. I wonder if, in among all of that, there are things that haven’t been said about you that you would like people to hear and listen to?
I like gardening. And I tell everyone and no one ever prints it!
Okay, well it will go into this article!
And it’s the ultimate form of creativity. I put little waratahs into the ground when I had a baby boy. He was on the ground next to the hole, playing in the dirt. They’re now 12-feet high with thousands of waratah flowers on them. I love that, it’s what keeps me sane. I’m lucky that I have a studio and in the end my work can speak for itself.And the work that I made recently, it’s nothing about what I keep talking about, it’s about the sense of collective anxiety that the world is facing in these really uncertain times. In a way, I made them for my children, to show them that I was watching, that I’m protecting them. I don’t want them to worry about it. There’s a lot that the human race should be worrying about right now.
What do you think are the key concerns for the human race?
The environment. It’s the elephant in every room and it’s a big elephant. And there’s a sense of catastrophic sadness attached to that. I’m always drawn to working out why things happen. We’ve lost 33 marsupials in Australia, extinct, gone forever. And most scientists believe that 23 of 33 of those are caused by cats. In 1998, we brought in the Companion Animals Act and every dog had to be kept on a leash. They brought in legislation that every cat has to be kept on a leash. And a lobby group came up and said that cats have been free since Egypt and they should be free now. So, they cancelled the legislation, the Companion Animals Act says that dogs have to be kept on a leash and cooped up all the time and cats can be free 24 hours a day. And in that time, since 1992, 23 of those extinctions have happened. What are we doing? We caused those extinctions directly. When I hear politicians, who build a groundswell of support on this ultra-optimistic positive nationalist agenda, it’s criminal.
Have you found a way to understand that?
No, that’s what I’m always doing. I’ve started making paintings of recent far right politicians and I think it’s important that they’re not named, that we don’t give them a platform by using their names all the time, but it’s really for me to try and understand. I have a lot of friends on each side of the left and right debate, but a lot of my left-wing friends are driven by anger.