When I lived in New York, I worked in an ad agency on Madison Avenue, just around the corner from MOMA and St Patrick’s Cathedral. Just like all things New York, the advertising agency I worked in was competitive, the best idea always won. The trick was coming up with the best idea.
Sometimes in desperation I would escape onto the streets looking for inspiration. Sometimes I’d light a candle and pray in the cathedral – I’m not Catholic – nor Christian but I needed all the help I could get. Most other times, I went into MOMA and wandered its galleries, seeing the same artworks over and over again meant they became good friends, welcoming friends, inspiring friends who reminded me ‘I can do it’. After all I’d made it to New York, I had to live.
This same feeling is what I felt when I saw Ben Quilty’s work again at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. I’d first seen them at the National Arts School in Sydney a couple of years ago. At the time, they dwarfed me. The subjects, the technique, it was big. Too much for me to take in.
But seeing them again in their permanent home at the Australian War Memorial I was able to reconnect. See them again as old acquaintances. The space felt more intimate, I felt I was able to engage with the subject better and I think being in a war memorial made them all the more weighty.
Like all these exhibitions, what I love the most is the behind the scenes glimpses of the artist at work. While Ben’s work is big and splodgy, detail rendered in thick, edible strokes; what spoke to me more were the quiet sketches, the overwhelming relief of downtime in a war zone.
It makes you realise that all great works are thoughtful and contained before they explode on the canvas for us all to see.