BEN QUILTYPrivate Phillip Butler 7ARU, no.2, 2014, oil on linen, 80 × 70 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. 

BEN QUILTYStraight White Male, Self Portrait, 2014, oil on linen, 170 × 160 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. 

Straight White Male

Ben Quilty

Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong
Hong Kong Australia

Paint: a medium deeply rooted in art history, whose value is all too hastily disregarded in our technology-driven era. At Pearl Lam Galleries, tucked away in Hong Kong’s glorious, historic downtown Pedder Building, is one reason to be excited about painting—namely, “Straight White Male,” Australian artist Ben Quilty’s first solo exhibition in the Asian metropolis. The show does not disappoint. Fourteen fleshy, captivating portraits and landscapes consume the gallery space, demanding attention from viewers while drawing them deep into Quilty’s world of canvases, which are covered in thick strokes of glossy oil paint and encompass a lush palette of colors.

The portraits are—literally—of straight, white men. Specifically, they include Private Phil Butler, an Australian military veteran who, upon returning from the Vietnam War, was diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and left his family for the streets. The portraits also include that of Quilty’s cousin, a photojournalist based in Paris, and Quilty’s father, who is a recurring subject in the artist’s portraiture work and a figure he credits for his interest in Australian masculinity.

These are, however, not happy portraits. A repeating element is the depiction of what appears to be a severed head. The expressions on the faces are emotionally loaded with angst and a sense of gloom. The head in Private Phillip Butler 7ARU, no.2 (2014) appears to be in the process of transforming­ into a cup, with a mug handle growing out of its side. In another work, The Photojournalist (AQ) (2014), the head is depicted with all the colors of the rainbow, but also grossly disfigured and in a mid-metamorphic state. Quilty doesn’t shy away from painting himself either. Straight White Male, Self Portrait (2014) portrays the artist in the same, grotesque state of metamorphosis as his other subjects, with his upside-down head detached from his torso. In 2011, the artist spent a month in Afghanistan as an official war artist; and his portraits reflect his observations of (and empathy for) soldiers returning from war, who are left to face the scars of trauma and uncertainty of their future.

“Straight White Male” extends Quilty’s exploration of masculinity’s darker side, the forms of masculinity embraced by war, and dangerous, coming-of-age initiation rites drawn from his own experience growing up in the outer suburbs of northwestern Sydney. He admits to partaking voluntarily in the careless and risky behavior often attributed to young Australian men, which he maintains is an inescapable rite of passage, influenced by alcohol and drug-induced recklessness. This rather somber image is reflected in Pacific Self Portrait (2014). Part of Quilty’s new “Pacific Island/Ocean” series of paintings, it is inspired by his many visits to Bali, where he has been mentoring Myuran Sukumaran, a convicted Australian drug smuggler currently on death row. Bali is also the party hotspot for many young Australians engaging in the rash, risk-taking behavior that Quilty explores in his work. In Pacific Self Portrait, which is made in the artist’s Rorschach-inspired style, the tropical island of Bali is both a paradise and a hell.

Quilty has employed his monoprint technique since 2007. For him it symbolizes the depth of intellectual inquiry in his paintings and his encounters with conflicting sides of war, masculinity and histories of colonialism and racism. Inspired by the Rorschach test—a psychological tool that analyzes a person’s interpretation of inkblots to determine their personal and emotional characteristics—Quilty’s monoprint approach produces a copy (albeit a flawed and damaged one) of another image that he created, through the action of pressing a painted canvas onto a clean one.

BEN QUILTYFairy Bower Falls Rorschach no.2, 2014, oil on linen, 220 × 780 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong. 

The definite highlight of the exhibition, Fairy Bower Falls Rorschach no.2 (2014), can be first seen through a glass panel separating the gallery space from its reception desk. It is impossible not to gravitate toward this magnificent, twelve-panel landscape painting depicting a popular tourist spot in the southern highlands of New South Wales, Australia. This location is also the alleged unmarked site of an infamous massacre, in which a tribe of indigenous Aboriginal people were killed by two, young white men during the early 19th century—a legend that has been passed down through oral history­. The site, Fairy Bower Falls, is portrayed alongside a distorted, imperfect mirror image of itself, indicative of the two contested sides of its murky history. The painting is alluring, yet discovering the dark history that Quilty is referring to in his work causes one to question the hidden history behind this beautiful site, and to sense the potency of the landscape depicted in each loaded brushstroke.

The paintings hung in this exhibition call for contemplation—of what we know and what we wish to avoid—about the murky secrets of colonialism, the unspoken problems associated with aggressive forms of masculinity and the brutal struggles of war veterans. Paint is Quilty’s most powerful tool, and he uses it to his advantage.

“Straight White Male” is on view at Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong, until March 1, 2015.

Denise Tsui is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific. 

Installation view of BEN QUILTY’s “Straight White Male” at Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong, 2015. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries.