The Vizard Foundation
Art Collection of the 1990s
Australian Art and Artists from the Decade

Gordon Bennett

Gordon Bennett

Gordon Bennett is among the most successful artists of the 1990s and one of the most prominent new Australian artists on the international scene. The three works in the Vizard Foundation Collection allow an ample appreciation of Bennett's fecund visual invention and his complex intellectual programme. The object of disquisitions by almost every Australian art critic with post-modern or post-colonial sympathies, Bennett is an extremely able expositor of his own work. He writes:

I wish to reinstate a sense of Aboriginal people within the culturally dominant system of representation as human beings, rather than as a visual sign that signifies the "primitive", the "noble savage", or some other European construct associated with black skin.'1

Much of Bennett's work addresses this ambition through 'a kind of history painting' (as he puts it) that manipulates the visual repertoire of modern art, representations of brutal moments in Australian history, and older racist advertising images. Death of the ahistorical subject (up rode the troopers a,b,c) (1993) gives a clear sense of his approach. The subtitle refers to the national song Waltzing Matilda, yet the victim is not a larrikin swagman but a terrified Aborigine about to be run through with a sabre by a uniformed trooper. The subject is one of the massacres of Aboriginal people as the Europeans seized possession of mainland Australia, a topical issue in 2003 and one that Bennett, a decade earlier, began to visualise for a guilt-ridden white audience.

The scene is made abstruse, however, by Bennett's visual language: a combination of tiny brown and white dots (partly a salute to Central Australian art); and skeins of lustrous red, black and yellow paint applied in Jackson Pollock’s manner. The separate small canvas salutes Kasimir Malevich's 'black square', but redefines it by analogy with black skin, bloodily peeled back to reveal an old photo of Aboriginal men in chains. The word 'FEAR' is written in Bennett's powerful 'welt' style, designed 'to convey the wounding of the human spirit, its scarification [by] laying down beads of red paint, overpainting in black and then cutting into the raised bead to reveal its red interior.'2

The series of Body prints that Bennett made in 1994 continues this allegory of the black body. The prints count among the simplest and most effective of his visual statements. They have a performative character, recording a series of actions in his Brisbane studio.3 In them, Bennett stripped naked, brushed the front of his body with black acrylic paint, then carefully lowered his chest, pelvis and legs onto a sheet of white art paper on the studio floor, supporting his body briefly with his hands and forearms.

In doing so, Bennett rewrites a famous event in the history of the avant-garde, the Anthropometries that the French artist, Yves Klein, orchestrated around 1960, engaging female models to print their bodies onto paper using Klein's trademark blue paint. Bennett redresses the sexism of that venture, replacing the models' bodies with the artist's own. Blue becomes matte black, a colour that refers metaphorically to Bennett's indigeneity, even if it bears little relation to the colour of his skin. The insertion of the hands, absent in Klein's Anthropometries, gives a sense of deliberate agency to the works, and recalls the handprint’s role in art, be it in Aboriginal rock art or in certain Pollock paintings. Replete with indexical traces of pubic hair and fingerprints, the graphic 'X' of this body has a rare immediacy and eloquence.

Performance with object for the expiation of guilt (Apple Premiere mix) (1995) is a digitally manipulated performance made by Bennett specifically for the television screen, but its verbal violence and repeated aggressive acts make the thirty-minute videotape difficult to watch. The artist appears 'as a white man inflicting a terrible violence on the mute body of Aboriginal history, represented as a black coffin-shaped box made to the dimensions of his own body'.4 As Bennett recounts, 'The performance consists of me dressed in a black formal suit with no shoes and with my head bandaged completely except for small slits for my eyes. I pace backwards and forwards with a small stock whip in hand, swearing at the object on the floor. I periodically whip the object. ... I yell at the object to "get up" and "move". I also call it racist names.'5 The political intensity of such works of the mid-1990s has lessened as Bennett returned to painting, but the visual interest of his edgy interweavings of culture has only increased with time.

- Roger Benjamin

  1. G Bennett, 'Aesthetics and iconography: an artist's approach', in A_ratjara: art of the first Australians: traditional and contemporary works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, DuMont, Cologne, Germany, 1993, p. 87
  2. G Bennett, artist's statement, in Systems end: contemporary Art in Australia, Sherman Galleries, Sydney, 1996, p. 22
  3. These actions are recorded in the television documentary, Black angels: a widening vision, Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Juniper Films, 1994, VHS videotape, 55 mins.
  4. A Marsh, 'Gordon Bennett: a menace in Australian history', Eyeline, no. 41, 1999/2000, p. 27.
  5. G Bennett, ‘On shadows (of my former self)’, artist’s statement, 25 Sept, 1995.

Gordon Bennett is represented in Australia by Sutton Gallery, Melbourne and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.