signed, dated and inscribed verso: Sleepless (Kenny) Ben Quilty 2018
Arndt Art Agency, Berlin, 2020
Private collection, Melbourne
My Name is Nobody [online], Arndt Art Agency, Berlin, 20 January - 13 March 2020
Sleepless (Kenny) 2018 combines many of Ben Quilty’s characteristic themes and visual motifs. Portraiture is at the heart of his practice and having won the Archibald Prize in 2011 for his portrait of Margaret Olley (1923-2011), Quilty went on to produce powerfully incisive portraits of Australian soldiers as the official Australian war artist in Afghanistan. Sleepless (Kenny) particularly, recalls earlier paintings of inebriated mates, which were the starting point for his lifelong exploration of modern masculinity.
In 2018, this ongoing interrogation of masculinity took the form of a series titled The Bottom Feeders. Exhibited at Sydney Contemporary with Tolarno Galleries, these paintings depict Santa Claus as the ultimate bottom feeder: drunk, smoking, sloppy and grotesque. Quilty was not alone in finding it difficult to have any faith in exemplary male figures at a time when the media was dominated by Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault charges, President Trump’s daily antics, rising domestic violence statistics, and shocking revelations of abuse by religious institutions.1 Never one to pull punches, Quilty chose Santa as the ultimate representation of the dominance of the straight, white male. As the exhibition essay explains, ‘Santa stands in for the men who were initially revered as figures of implicit generosity and assumed benevolence.’2
As much as these paintings are about patriarchy and self-critique, they are also about the rampant consumerism of our capitalist society. ‘Santa teaches us to be good, not for the sake of goodness, but solely in the pursuit of material reward.’3 While the original Saint Nicholas gave to the needy, the tradition has morphed into one of materialism and consumption. Flouting his own naughty or nice idiom, Quilty’s Santa displays uncontrollable self-indulgence in the vices of liquor and cigarettes. The beloved childhood character is corrupted into an ugly reflection of what Quilty sees as the backwards values of Western society. Instead of jolly generosity, Santa is a bloated reflection of corporate greed and self-gratification.
Sleepless (Kenny) fits squarely within this series, with both the floating candy canes and the round-bellied, bearded subject. However, the title tells us the actual sitter was Quilty’s acquaintance, Kenny. Kenny also appears surrounded by Christmas presents in Pancreatitis Kenny 2018 (included in The Bottom Feeders at Sydney Contemporary with Tolarno Galleries). The title of the work suggests an ailing subject suffering from Pancreatitis, which is often linked to alcoholism, smoking and obesity. Quilty’s skill for portraiture is evident in the melancholy aspect captured in Kenny’s face. We see Kenny again, this time wearing a t-shirt, his tattooed arms visible, in Quilty’s colour etching Kenny 2018 which is held in the collection of Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Quilty’s painterly style reflects his indignation of contemporary society. Paint is slathered on, scraped back, and overworked with an immediacy and intensity that is palpable. The speed with which he applies the paint reveals a ferocity of feeling. Yet, it is the restraint Quilty shows in the blank sections of canvas and the skin and flat areas of grey background, that make his decisive use of paint so effective. Sleepless (Kenny) is Quilty at his best, as a portraitist, a moralist, and a conveyer of profound emotion.
1. Desmond, M., Ben Quilty: The Bottom Feeders, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, 2018 [accessed February 2023]: https://benquilty.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Ben-Quilty-The-Bottom-Feeders-text.pdf
3. Stojanovska, M., Ben Quilty: 150 Years, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, 2020 [accessed February 2023]: https://benquilty.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Ben-Quilty-150-Years-exhibition-essay-by-Milena-Stojanovska.pdf
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