Menzies Art Brands



The birds are important. The budgies, mynas and cockatoos that populate Ben Quiltys work are far more than just cutesy, faintly menacing characters. They are ciphers for a provocative exploration of Australian masculinity and the inexorable degradation of the Australian environment as a result of European settlement.1 Quilty also conflates them with whitewashing of the Australian landscape by Australian painters of Anglo descent.2 Beast 2, which was acquired directly from Quilty in 2009 and shown in A Convergence of Birds at Goulburn Regional Art Gallery in 2011, is a charming example of his tongue-in-cheek but morally driven observations of Australian society, culture and environment.

Quiltys career exploded in the early 2000s with his thickly painted Toranas and portraits of his mates the Maggots. These piercing observations of a life spent drinking, speeding and getting high executed in confident impasto cut through an art world that had mostly put aside figurative art.3 This series was followed by musings on birds and burgers, a preoccupation with Australian manhood and Rorschach landscape paintings interrogating the effects of colonisation.4 Quilty won the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 2009 and the Archibald Portrait Prize in 2011; has travelled to Afghanistan as an official war artist; and held multiple solo exhibitions at state and regional galleries and overseas. His work is held in numerous state and national collections.

The cover of the catalogue for A Convergence of Birds shows Pig 2011, a painting of a budgie looming over, or becoming a green/gold Holden Torana a monstrous Australian hybrid. Critic Andrew Frost termed this bogan ornithology. 5 Beast 2 is a quieter manifestation of bogan ornithology. It is a meditation on a native Australian parrot beloved overseas as a pet and selectively bred to grotesquerie; ubiquitous Australiana far removed from its nomadic origins in the deserts of northern Australia; and a cocky stand in for a particular brand of Australian masculinity.

The exhibition featured several portraits of budgies including a self-portrait of Quilty as a curious blue budgie. Tellingly, the indigenous budgie is green and gold. Blue and pink budgies have been bred for home aviaries, alongside mutations in their natural shape to enlarge their head feathers, a by-product of which is the concealment of their eyes. A Convergence of Birds also included portraits of Quiltys mates alongside famous Australian artists, as themselves with, and/or as, budgies. Diptychs of Albert Namatjira (1902-1959) and budgie; Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917) and budgie; and several Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) as budgie paintings Budgie after Budgie after Streeton 2004 and Budgie after Streeton 2004.

The humble budgie is able to take on these heavily freighted issues because of Quiltys creative melange. In the same way that a burger can become a skull can become the face of Quiltys son Joe, and back to a burger; a famous Australian artist can become a budgie can become a Holden Torana. This kind of visual irony is a Quilty trademark, making plain the swirl of ideas he grapples with.

Beast 2 is a subtler painting on a striking scale. A large green and gold budgerigar proudly faces the viewer, depicted in delicious birthday cake pastels in Quiltys inimitable style. Exuding quiet confidence the bird in Beast 2 meets the viewer on its own terms, assured of its appeal. The title skewers masculine ideals how can this ball of feathers be beastly? And if this is number two, how many beasts are there? Staring down the Beast 2 is an exercise in provocation. The budgie paintings are, according to the artist, a fitting representation of the way white Australian society has claimed its own identity.5


1. Frost, A., Bogan Ornithology, A Convergence of Birds, Goulburn Regional Art Gallery, New South Wales, 2011, pp.8-9
2. Desmond, M., Albert, Ben Quilty, The University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane, 2009, p.84
3. Turner, B., Ben Quilty on the Burden of Being Australias Artist from Central Casting, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, 23 February 2019
4. Desmond, M., Trigger Happy, Drill Hall Gallery, ANU, Canberra, 2013, p.10
5. Frost, A., Bogan Ornithology, A Convergence of Birds, p.8
6. Ben Quilty in correspondence with Lisa Slade, quoted in Diminishing Paradise, Ben Quilty, The University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane, 2009, p.24

Corinna Cullen MA (Art History and Curatorial Studies)


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