“Straight White Male”: Australian Artist Ben Quilty Paints Himself and Others in Socially Aware Portraits

Some artists devote themselves to rigorous, life-long studies of light and color or the use of lines and forms. Australian painter Ben Quilty looks directly into the mouth of the beast, exploring themes of colonialism, racism, war, and male aggression, often implicating himself as an antagonist in self-portraits.

Straight White Male,” the title of Quilty’s recent solo exhibition at Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong, is both a verdict and an admission of guilt. He points directly at the demographic that, in the wake of feminism and post-colonialism, has been charged with being the most privileged population in the world, and also the chief perpetrators of our civilization’s violent history, among other wrongdoings. That said, his work does more than just incriminate; above all it seems committed to understanding maleness, particularly male aggression, through humor and emotion, and at times he is strikingly empathetic. 

The portrait series in the show depicts a range of men’s faces in a fleshy and muddy palette, shaped by Quilty’s characteristic thick, powerful swaths of oil paint. For the most part they are unflattering, the features distorted and warped, nearly grotesque. They are all mid-metamorphosis: part man, part devil, par bird, and even part coffee mug. A few of them bear cartoonishly long noses, limp tubes hanging off their faces, phallically suggestive and… flaccid. Some are painted with extra white space next to their faces, as if to leave them incomplete or devoid of something. Quilty often paints self-portraits and doesn’t save himself from the grotesque transformations, suggesting that he is just as guilty as the other straight white males. 

Fairy Bower Rorschach (2014), a 12-panel painting, shows a popular tourist spot in Australia that was also the site of a massive Aboriginal massacre, according to oral history. Modeling his landscape after a Rorschach inkblot test, he introduces the idea of subjective interpretation; rather than paint a landscape as resplendent and real, he strives to be culturally accurate. Quilty has said that in painting landscapes he is “somehow trying to tackle the notion that as white people we really don’t understand it and we can only look at it in a two-dimensional sense.”

Quilty’s subject matter is often saddled with a dark past. Amidst portraits of friends, family, and himself, he shows men who pursued dangerous, high-risk life situations, and suffered the consequences. One of the portraits in the series is of Myuran Sukumaran, a convicted drug smuggler on death row in Indonesia. A painting of Private Phil Butler is also included in the show, an Australian Vietnam War veteran who, following service, suffered a PTSD-related breakdown, and left his family for the streets. These experiences can be braided into the myth of maleness as shaped by notions of valor and bravery. Quilty’s fascination seems to lie in how these ideals play out in actual life, when confronted with real human fear and feeling.

—M.A. Wholey

Straight White Male” is on view at Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong, Jan. 15–Mar. 1, 2015.

Follow Pearl Lam Galleries on Artsy.

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