Ben Quilty: after Afghanistan - biography

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Ben Quilty

Ben Quilty is an Australian artist producing rich visual images which have earned him a national reputation. Acclaimed as a portraitist, Quilty creates thickly impastoed canvases using vibrant coloursand broad brush strokes that build up layers of paint. He works in a wide range of genres, including portraits and still lifes, but also landscapes that reflect his fascination with Australianness, a passion which  has its origins in Arthur Streeton’s edict that Australian artists should look to their own backyards for inspiration.1

Born in 1973, Quilty grew up in the outer suburbs of north-western Sydney, where his youth typified the self-destructive character of Australian masculinity: drugs, alcohol, and recklessness. Quilty was a willing participant in this risk-taking and destructive behaviour, but always questioned it. “Every so often when I was drinking and taking drugs to the point of getting violently ill with my mates, I’d start asking them, ‘Why are we doing this?’”2 He was flirting with death as a young Australian, which he has often embodied in his artwork with images of skulls, Holden Toranas, and drunken mates.

After high school, Quilty followed his interest in art and obtained a Bachelor of Visual Arts from Sydney College of the Arts. He also undertook a Bachelor of Visual Communication from the University of Western Sydney, which included a unit in women’s studies. “I became very aware that to understand [the] strange role that I was playing as a young man in my society … I had to understand contemporary feminist theory.”3 He also took a course in Aboriginal studies at the University of Melbourne.

After winning the 2002 Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship, Quilty went on to be a finalist in the prestigious Wynne and Archibald prizes. He won the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 2009 with a portrait of Jimmy Barnes; his portrait of artist, friend and mentor, Margaret Olley, won the Archibald Prize in 2011. In November 2012 he was appointed a trustee to the Art Gallery of New South Wales Trust.

In October 2011, the Australian War Memorial commissioned Quilty as an official war artist in Afghanistan to interpret the experiences of Australian Defence Force personnel participating in Operation Slipper.

He is represented throughout Australian national and state galleries and frequently exhibits in major national group and solo exhibitions, including the 2009 University of Queensland Art Museum major retrospective, Ben Quilty live!

1 Lisa Slade, “Ben Quilty: we are history”, in Lisa Slade, Ben Quilty live!, Brisbane, University of Queensland Art Museum, 2009, p. 14

2 Ben Quilty, quoted in, Janet Hawley, “Tour of duty”, Good Weekend, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 February 2012, p. 14

3 Ben Quilty, Australian Story ABC TV interview, 28 June 2012