Art

The first large-scale exhibition of Gordon Bennett’s work at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art reveals a terrible beauty. By Tristen Harwood.

Unfinished Business

Notes to Basquiat (Death of Irony) (2002) by Gordon Bennett.
Credit: Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Bennett

Nothing comes from nothing, or – as Gordon Bennett wrote in felt-tip pen across a sheet of A4 paper – there’s “no future without a past TM”. This simple expression is simultaneously an ironic slogan and wayward refrain, recurring in various semblances throughout Bennett’s practice. The untitled drawing is dated April 18, 1998, and installed among many works on paper in Unfinished Business: The Art of Gordon Bennett, a major survey of the scrupulous painter at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane. The drawings contextualise Bennett’s installations and extensive canvases, which appropriate and quote imagery, iconography, objects and text from art, popular culture, history.

Dispossession is an unguarded secret in the art of Bennett, whose career spanned from 1987 until his death in 2014. Unfinished Business parses his career chronologically so that the first works you see ask existential questions concerning what, in The Manifest Toe (1996), Bennett calls the “collapse of the conceptual gap between the binary opposites of self/other, civilised/savage”, which he felt when he “became aware of [his] Aboriginal heritage”.

Psycho(d)rama (1990) stages the co-constitutive relation between self and other, possession and dispossession, Indigenous and settler identity as an overblown chess game. A giant chessboard fills the room, where two sculpted Aboriginal figures at each end and a classical bust take the place of chess pieces. On the wall behind the black sculptures hangs a large black-and-white photograph of Bennett’s Aboriginal mother. On the opposite wall is a portrait of the artist’s white father. By replacing chess pieces – which have rigidly ascribed power – with figures of ambiguous value, Bennett blurs the game’s transparent power dynamic, evading the logic of “checkmate”, of inescapable capture.

Bennett is his own absent biographer in this self-portrait as family portrait. It’s an “ode to impurity”, to borrow a phrase from Fred Moten’s Black and Blur (2017), a refusal to be one or the other, the “subject” gone walkabout. Psycho(d)rama seems to be saying that what’s in between self and other is unrepresentable, at least within the given “black and white” system of representation.

In Culture bag (1992) the text “black history” is written over and over in black crayon across a temporary floor, so that entering the space, your footsteps remove the marks, erasing “black history”, unmaking or making the artwork.

There’s something ritualistic about this floor drawing. In its first iteration in 1992, Bennett got on his knees in Bellas Gallery, Brisbane, and wrote the two words “black” and “history” directly onto the floorboards until they filled the space, only to be gradually buffed by bodies passing through the gallery. Here, Black history comes into relief through its negation.

Another component of Culture bag is an old brown suitcase, left open and filled with broken beer bottles set in white plaster that looks like beach sand. The word “tears” is painted in black on the inside of the lid and “culture” in white on its exterior. A suitcase is an intimate object. This one looks as if it has been abandoned at some point and retrieved by the artist. The glass shards and plaster invoke a sense of violent permanence. Who does it belong to? Aileen Moreton-Robinson holds in The White Possessive (2015) that white possession (colonial claims on bodies and territory) is predicated on a reduction of Indigenous people to property-less property. In the vein of David Hammons, whom Bennett cites as an influence, this discarded object holds a strong trace of the human. It evokes an elusive quality of non-possession that relentlessly evades white possession.

The work is a kind of bridge from Bennett’s earlier, more self-exploratory, existential works towards broader historical interests and transnational visual lexicon. It prepares you for Bennett’s deconstruction of representational systems, the despotism of the eye, and his concern with the canvas as a site of subjection.

Bennett meticulously cuts and rewinds familiar images and iconography, often from artists whose work he admires: Piet Mondrian’s grid in the Home décor works, Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben Day dots in the Mirror paintings, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s overlaid figures in the Notes to Basquiat series. Jackson Pollock’s drips are repeated through most canvases in the exhibition. Sometimes Bennett repeats his own old works in new paintings.

Bennett’s appropriation is all rupture, the aesthetic of the wound. In Home Décor (Algebra) Ocean (1998), Mondrian’s grid is a vibrant scaffolding for paintings within the painting. In the centre of the canvas Bennett repaints his own Possession Island (1991), with Lichtenstein and Basquiat panels to the right and a Margaret Preston next to the figure of Noah. To the left a small reproduction of Philip Guston’s City Limits (1969) depicts three hooded Ku Klux Klan figures.

Guston described his paintings as self-portraits. He perceived himself as “being behind the hood”, placing his Klan figures in mundane situations. In (Algebra) Ocean the Guston panel represents a horizon of routinised violence, along which drift the other symbols and signs. A list of racist epithets mingles with seemingly benign phrases, such as “gum tree”. Rather than fixating on a movement towards “reclaiming” a pre-colonial identity, Bennett sounds the ways perception is bound up in language, a structure that creates a break between pre-colonial and post-contact ways of being.

Another painting, Myth of the Western man (White man’s burden) (1992), is a cerulean canvas covered with a scrim of white stippling, leaving small zones of solid blue scattered across its surface. There are dates painted in these blue zones – 1788, 1992, 1838 and so on – floating like flags. The entire canvas has been splashed Pollock-style with black, yellow and red streaks of paint. And in the centre is “the explorer” holding a pole, alluding to the Whitlam government’s acquisition of Pollock’s Blue Poles/Number 11 (1952).

The numbers and the Pollock drips are abstract until they’re not. Specific dates punctuate the duration of transnational colonial history, British invasion, the Mabo decision, the Myall Creek massacre. The drips could be ecstatic licks of paint that dissolve perspectival space, or veins, or lacerations. They echo the influence of Navajo sand painting on Pollock’s style, rupturing the notion of the originary. If, as Édouard Glissant writes in Poetics of Relation (1990), “identity will be achieved when communities attempt to legitimate their right to possession of a territory through myth”, Bennett’s Myth is wounded escape, walkabout, exhausting the metaphysics of possession.

Is the canvas rendered as the site of the whipped Black body? In Triptych: Requiem, Of Grandeur, Empire (1989), intestinal tracts compose a foreground of red earth and mountains. In Altered body print (Purity of hybrids) (1994), Bennett literally uses his entire body to create a black silhouette, a darkening of Yves Klein’s series in patented blue.

Bennett’s paintings say “what saying says”, to quote poet Lionel Fogarty: “the sun shone at a cold night’s air”. On the night that Unfinished Business opened at GOMA, the power cut out, something that hadn’t happened before. The terrible beauty in Bennett’s painting is the haunting fact of indigeneity which, beyond representation, is enunciated in its renunciation. There is no reclamation, no remembering, no historical correction here: only the evasion of conclusion, an open wound.

Unfinished Business: The Art of Gordon Bennett is at GOMA, Brisbane, until March 21.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2020 as "An open wound".

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Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer, cultural critic and researcher.