Exploring the work of the first great artist to emerge from Alice Springs’ Mwerre Anthurre Artists’ studio, Billy Benn (IAD Press, 2011), co-authored by Benn and the studio’s former arts coordinator Catherine Peattie, is a shifting, hopscotch analysis of the artist’s life and work that explores and defines his achievements from a variety of angles. First and foremost, it offers a glorious and generous compilation of the work itself in all its dazzling range and color. For this alone, it is well worth owning, for despite the Benn’s accomplishments, he has never been widely anthologized in surveys or publications.
Textually, the book offers three major essays, by Peattie, theorist Ian McLean, and curator Judith Ryan. Interspersed with these are four chapters by Peattie and Benn entitled “Tracing Billy Benn.” These are accounts of travels that the two undertook through Benn’s traditional country northeast of Alice Springs between 2007 and 2009. In them Benn tells his life story and that of his family, to which Peattie adds carefully researched and illuminating detail. The two visit many of the locations that have appeared in Benn’s paintings over the past fifteen years, often pairing photographs of the hills and ranges themselves with Benn’s memory-drenched recreations of them.
These four journeys give the book a geographical organization rather than a temporal one. At first I found this slightly maddening, I must admit. Benn’s art, like those of his fellow artists at Mwerre Anthurre, is representational in a traditional Western sense: when we look at his visions of his country, we see hills, trees, and riverbeds and not the symbolic traces of them common to other desert painters’ invocations of landscape and country. But unlike his fellows, or indeed like the watercolorists of the Hermannsburg school and its progenitor Albert Namatjira, whose work inspired Benn’s career, Benn has not been stylistically static through the years.
There has been a marked change in the overall look of Benn’s paintings through time: his earlier works tend to be sombre in tone, subdued in brushwork, small in scale. In more recent years, he has grown more expansive in every way. His palette has grown bolder and brighter and his early technique of small, almost transparent washes has been transformed at times into Fauvist displays on a grand scale.
At the 2008 NATSIAA, a painting of his hung next to one by Angelina George and outshone hers in size and in the brilliance of its color. The work and style of few desert artists have undergone such startling transformations in the course of a career, and I was initially frustrated at being unable to easily track the metamorphoses in his choices for depicting his country.
I was equally frustrated at first by the lack of apparent consonance between Peattie’s photographs of that country and Benn’s transcriptions of the land. But that very difference forced me to think more closely about how Benn was presenting the landscape and ultimately offered a valuable insight into his technique. Peattie necessarily stands apart from the hills, shooting them in panoramic angles from a distance. Benn, on the other hand, inhabits the ranges and even when his paintings have a superficial panoramic feel to them—as for instance when he works on a board or a canvas whose length more than three or four times its height—his perspective begins right in and amongst the landforms. For all the grandeur that is implied in his arrangements, this is a view from within: from within the rising heights of the hills, but also from within Benn’s own consciousness of the landscape, painted as it often is from memory, from experience recollected in his own poetic tranquility.
My initial frustrations in matters of both chronology and topography were eased considerably by Judith Ryan’s essay “Imagination and Reality: the visionary landscapes of Billy Benn” that, as the penultimate chapter, comes late in the book. Ryan treats both the change in Benn’s artistic strategies over time and the perspectives, internal and external, from which Benn paints, and does so in hugely illuminating and gratifying ways. One of the aspects of Benn’s story that I’m particularly grateful to Ryan for explicating fully is the influence of his first teacher, a Chinese woman named Jane, who was the wife of a miner with whom Benn labored in his younger days. Mention of this seminal influence on Benn’s style was made to me early on by Michael Powell of Melbourne’s Ochre Gallery, but no one I spoke with over the years seemed to know more, if anything, about it. As Ryan notes,
Benn’s works feature the music of the brush, used in a painterly rather than linear manner to evoke rather than carve out topography; they often rely on interactions between solid forms and negative space, occasioning ‘aesthetic emotions analogous to those of music that bear comparison with Chinese ink painting and calligraphy….
Exploring the works that Benn created after Peattie introduced him to larger canvas supports during her tenure at Mwerre Anthurre, Ryan is equally eloquent about his later stylistic development in the period from 2006 to 2009:
He understands the power of empty space, how to exploit a plain ground, and is absorbed by the physicality of paint, its texture and vibrancy. His square works on canvas are optionally reinforced by energetic brushstrokes; intense colour and the shininess and tactility of acrylic. A freedom of gesture and expressionistic colour sense characterise these brash and expansive pictures of places sanctified by memory. His current canvases exaggerate and intensify form and colour but issue from the same vision as his microcosmic studies of country spread out on long horizontals or condensed on tiny boards.
Ian McLean’s contribution to this volume, “Billy Benn, Art History and Outsider Art,” follows the critic’s customary bent to examine the artist and his work in terms of artworld reception, theory, and classification. It is less an exploration of Benn’s painting in and of itself, as Ryan’s essay is, than an attempt to examine Benn in relation to the concepts of outsider art, naive art, art brut, the theories of Anglo-European art criticism, and finally to the work of Albert Namatjira. McLean argues that, like Namatjira, Benn is indeed an outsider in Australian society; he is a man stigmatized by a diagnosis of schizophrenia (in Benn’s case) who has nonetheless found salvation in art. McLean avers that categorizing Benn’s work as Outsider Art ultimately obscures more than it reveals, and claims that “Benn’s art asks us to think outside the discourse of otherness; indeed, to erase it from the lexicon of art history.”
If there is one lesson to be drawn from McLean’s discursive analysis, it is that deep meditation upon the paintings themselves, shorn of labels and preconceptions of all kinds, is equally deeply rewarding, and happily, Peattie’s book offers ample opportunity to contemplate Benn’s accomplishments. The paintings repay close scrutiny and open-hearted acceptance, revealing the beauty of their brushstrokes, the surprising compositional choices. I found I could spend an hour just asking myself to be cognizant to where Benn has positioned the horizon line in relation to the shape of the canvas, and how that decision transforms the shape of the landscape, how it makes the sky weighty in one case and causes it to disappear in another, even though that negative atmospheric space may occupy a third or a half of the canvas. I have repeatedly been surprised to discover that what at first appeared to be a simple line of gum trees decorating the margin of a painting turns out (as in Blackfella Pool, above) to be an exercise in perspective, the tracing of a riverbed from the foreground deep into the foothills far away. Immanence and mystery play in a delicate balance in these landscapes as devotional objects, and that play is, for me, one of the chief delights in Benn’s painting. I’m grateful to Peattie for this chance this book has given me to contemplate both what is hidden and what is revealed in the wash of color and the strength of brushwork.
Coda: I wrote this post several weeks ago, before I learned that Billy Benn had died. Although news of the passing of another senior artist seems almost too commonplace these days, I was nonetheless especially saddened to hear that Billy’s gone. The thought that there would be no more of these often thrilling, sometimes mysterious, consistently unexpected interpretations of country struck me still for a moment. Perhaps it was partly because I’d spent several weeks immersed in looking at the paintings reproduced in this volume. But I think it was more that I felt a singular voice had been stilled, a vision suddenly taken away. Despite the growing success of an ever increasing number of Mwerre Anthurre artists, many of whom share common artistic strategies and styles, there has never been another artist whose work resembled Benn’s; he is in many ways irreplaceable and irreproducible. I mourned that loss in a way that surprised me, and took me back to dream once more into these gorgeous landscapes.