That Ben Quilty can do human faces is something we know. This much has been clear since works like Untitled (Joe) and Self portrait dead (over the hills and far away) (both 2007), and more recently his Archibald Prize winning Margaret Olly (2011). That Ben Quilty can do nudes is also something we know after his recent, and highly praised, show After Aghanistan at the National Art School, Sydney.
Quilty made his name, and continues to impress with the way he paints flesh. His thick, corporal swathes of paint have obvious predecessors in Freud, Bacon and Auerbach. Like these three, Quilty applies his paint unsparingly, making his work almost sculptural on close inspection. His brushstrokes almost always end with thick coagulated blobs of oil paint which he leaves as-is. The colours Quilty uses to render human skin are always surprising, but perhaps less so if you have seen much of Freud and co’s work. Purples and blues are found almost as often as reds and pinks, and often sit next to darker browns, greys and blacks.
There is plenty of flesh in Quilty’s new show The Fiji Wedding at Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne. In fact, flesh is what I came to see. But what turns out to be more interesting than flesh in The Fiji Wedding is Quilty’s engagement with a sort of 21st Century Orientalism. Such an engagement should not be too surprising given the title of the show and Quilty’s express desire to engage with the phenomena of tourism and globalisation in today’s world.
What first alerts the viewer to Quilty’s self-conscious play with Orientalism is the recurring motif of the palm tree in a number of the works. Such an obvious symbol of the island utopias of the Pacific cannot be read as anything other than a slightly veiled reference to the Orientalist works of Matisse and Gauguin. The engagement with these controversial figures of Orientalism continues in Quilty’s colour choices. The various shades of violet oozing through the beach scenes in Survivor (2012) and Seroquel (2013) recall the tropical scenes of Gauguin’s Pacific Island paintings of the 1890s.
Importantly though, Quilty’s exoticism is more self-mocking than his predecessors – the juxtaposition of the cigarette and the flower necklace in The Groom (2012) being the perfect example. The figure in this painting brings up another point at which Quilty’s work is reacting against traditional modes of Orientalism. In his two paintings positioning white or Anglo figures in Fijian settings, The Groom and Survivor, the white men look out of place. In The Groom the figure’s torso is strikingly white and the arms ridiculously spindly. The figure looks uncomfortable and out of place against the lush green background of hazily made out vegetation. Similarly, in Survivor the contorted nude figure appears to be in a state of distress as they lie sprawled on the sand near the water’s edge.
In spite of Quilty’s success in undermining some of the traditional tenets of Orientalism his dark new exoticism is not without its shortcomings. Most problematic is the apparent reliance on an idea of ‘natural’ order. In Quilty’s natural order the Fijians are at one with nature whereas the white men are out in their tropical surrounds and spend most of their time indoors. In Griggs, The Shower, and White Man (all 2012) the white characters are confined to indoor and man-made settings. In contrast to this the apparently Fijian figures are portrayed as being at one with their natural surrounds. In Bait (2013) a Fijian man’s head melds with the body of a fish. In Myuran (2012) another Fijian man stands in reflective repose in front of an islet topped by a single palm tree – the islet itself ambiguously doubling as a spotted cowrie shell opening its crustacean lips to the warm tropical tide. This aligning of the ‘natives’ with nature amounts to a troubling return to the idealisation of the Orient which characterised Western attitudes during Gauguin and Matisse’s time.
The alignment of the West with sin and depravity and the East with prelapsarian peace is the one flaw in an otherwise incredible exhibition. The engagement with landscape in these works marks a new and interesting direction for Quilty. For an artist who has made his name painting people Quilty’s subtly nuanced portrayal of landscape in these new works is especially praiseworthy. It will be exciting to see where Quilty travels next.
Ben Quilty:The Fiji Wedding is on show at Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne until 1 June.