On a hot summer Wednesday afternoon in London, Ben Quilty has just walked into the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea for the first time.
“I can see my work still in crates around the room,” he says. “And it’s going up on the walls in a couple of hours. It feels totally surreal.”
Winner of the main prize at the inaugural Prudential Eye Awards for Contemporary Asian Art in January, Quilty is the first Australian to have a solo exhibition at the internationally acclaimed gallery.
He will start hanging his show just four hours after landing at Heathrow.
“I just spent 22 hours on an aeroplane sitting next to my five-year-old daughter,” he says. “Somewhere over the Persian Gulf on the in-flight entertainment program, Robbie Buck introduced Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir and I started crying. It was too much. But I’m here and it’s all good.”
Quilty, who grew up in Kenthurst, is laughing as he says this. Having won the award in January – giving him $US50,000 and the exhibition opportunity – he still cannot believe his paintings are showing at the gallery, the launchpad for artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst.
“It’s not that I doubt myself but I always think I can make a better painting,” he says.
“Painting is like my religion. It’s the spirit of who I am. And then my message comes out of that ground.”
Quilty, a winner of the 2011 Archibald Prize who toured with Australian troops in Afghanistan in 2011 as the Australian War Memorial’s official war artist, has various past works in the show, which opened on Friday and runs till August 3.
His multi-part series Inhabit, which features 16 portraits ranging from Captain Cook to the devil and a self-portrait, along with an elaborate bird cage featuring bronze cast skulls and fencing wire, is the centrepiece.
Also included are Evening Shadows Rorschach After Johnstone, Self Portrait Smashed Rorschach, Kuta Rorschach No 2, and Fairy Bower Falls Rorschach. The latter shows a beautiful waterfall near Quilty’s home in Robertson in the Southern Highlands, which is also the site of an Aboriginal massacre in the early 19th century.
Since winning the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship in 2002, Quilty’s art has become more lyrical, more layered with meaning and more interrogative, often of himself, about what it is to be Australian.
But his thickly textured paintings have always been serious, beautiful and ugly whether he is exploring Australian masculinity through smashed cars, skulls and mates, indigenous culture and colonisation or the features of his friend, the late artist Margaret Olley in his Archibald-winning work.
In two weeks, he and his family decamp to Paris for a three-month painting residency.
Before then, he muses: “Every single step of the way, people have said, ‘Is he still the same? Is he going to be ruined by this fame?’ If you have this passion for making art, you get to make up your own system of beliefs every day in the studio, you get to try to effect change – social, environmental, whatever. Why would you ever need to change?”