Anthony Bennett, visual artist

It's about looking for that chance element ...

Born in Mackay and now based in Brisbane, visual artist Anthony Bennett isn’t one to go quietly. From his unflinchingly honest pieces of art to his compelling worldviews, the gifted painter has been shaped by transformative life experiences and spells working in cities around the globe. Now dividing his time between Brisbane and Sydney, Anthony was recently named as a finalist in the 2014 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize, having already been recognised in major art competitions around the nation. The Weekend Edition tracked Anthony down this week to talk creative processes and nude postcard installations.

What’s the first piece of art you can remember making?
I’m told my first work of art was described at the time more as ‘couch vandalism’ by my parents and involved a brilliant combination of Biro and a brand-spanking-new white vinyl sofa. This was still in the days when physical discipline was the standard response to such youthful artistic activity, but it was perhaps an important lesson to learn that you always have to suffer for your art.

What’s your creative process like?
The best paintings for me come about through chance and are the ones that seem to paint themselves. The best I can do is try to get out of my own way and let that happen. The failure rate in that process is extremely high, but it’s good to push things to oblivion. Through destruction is also creation. It’s also good to know when to stop.

Where would you most love to see your work hung – what’s the big dream?
I’d love to see my work hung everywhere. Or anywhere. I don’t normally see it hung at all as it sits on the floor of the studio until it goes to a new home and then it’s out of my control and lost to me. Where it goes is really not so important for me, as the fun part is in the creation. It’s about getting messy and throwing paint and looking for that chance element; I don’t really care about it after that. Is that a metaphor for life? Quite possibly. Let’s say it is.

What were you like as a child growing up in Mackay?
Growing up in Mackay was amazing. I remember going to the beach and having the whole place to myself was common. My footprints would often be the first on the sand, so it felt like it was all mine. I’m not really a herd animal so I prefer that sense of freedom and we have so much superb coastline to enjoy in Queensland.

The tragic loss of your mother and brother no doubt had a significant impact on you personally; what effect did it have on your art?
The death of my mother and brother in a car accident when I was 18 was a massive influence on everything that followed. My art and everything else was aimed at simply dealing with the pain and anger that resulted. I remember my father and sister and I would just cry when we saw each other and for about three months afterwards, sobbing seemed like our only form of communication. I don’t remember how we got food or did anything else. There was just a great numbness. Art is a great way to work through the pain and attempt to transfer the energy of anger into something positive, but much of it wasn’t fit for – nor intended to be – for public consumption and was destroyed or painted over as part of the cathartic process. It was screaming in paint.

Do you have a favourite piece of all the works you’ve created?
I have a lot of favourites. Usually the last piece I did is the favourite and if that doesn’t wear off after two weeks of staring at it, then I know it’s probably good. I’m looking back at old works now and doing limited-edition prints of the best ones, so discovering what I really like from my back catalogue. queen is a favourite, as is study for a portrait of reg, which is in the 2014 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize. I’m currently trying to document older works and have absolutely no idea where most of it has gone, as galleries like to keep distance between artist and buyer.

You’ve said that ‘iconoplasty’ best describes your work, what can you tell us about that?
Iconoplasty is a process similar to rhinoplasty and requires surgically altering art history for fun and profit and, most importantly, my own amusement.

You were a finalist in the recent 2014 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize, as well as the Sulman Prize, Archibald Prize and Wynne Prize in previous years. What do you personally consider to be your career highlight so far?
Being a finalist in those prizes is great fun and having your work on the walls of the Art Gallery of NSW is nice, but really the greatest achievement for me is simply being able to get up every day and do what I love and just make art – and that constant amazement that I can actually feed myself from that endeavour. This year, I also made the Australian curriculum and my work weaponised barbie was included in the Artwise: Visual Arts 7–10 text, so I quite like that I can now begin corrupting your children and the same buxom superheroes I was disciplined for drawing in the margins of biology texts when I was young are now legitimate entries.

We’ve heard whispers about a nude postcard installation in Vatican City … Please explain?
The nude postcard installation was once again my ode to the Catholic church and their wonderful ability to be the perfect capitalists, quite possibly the richest entity on the planet, and yet seek to frame themselves as an institution of good intent, despite all evidence to the contrary. I palmed my own postcards into the racks of the Vatican gift shop behind the portraits of popes and Virgin Mary cards until my cards were filling the racks, but still concealed behind the Vatican’s authorised cards. My thinking was that as the good pilgrims dutifully purchased the outer cards, my work would slowly be revealed but would not be purchased and so would eventually cover all the postcard racks, blooming nudes like flowers on a postcard tree. I would be long gone when this happened but that’s how it worked in my head. The reality, of course, is that they probably just sold them all and I added a few more dollars to their bulging coffers.

What are your words of wisdom for those who are creatively challenged?
For those who have lost their creativity – and I don’t believe that’s true – all you need to do is watch a kid paint a picture before they have been to school and had the creativity beaten and shaped into conformity. Watch that kid and just do that! Have fun, it will all come flooding back, it’s still in there …

The annual Queensland College of Art (QCA) Showcase is on again this weekend – what can you remember about your time studying at QCA?
QCA was great and gave me an opportunity to mix with other lunatics and play with materials and media for three years – an opportunity to use facilities that you can’t access any other way: playing with dark rooms and developing black-and-white prints and etching and all the other forms of artistic alchemy. It was amazing.

What do you love about living in Brisbane?
Brisbane has a nice and relaxed energy that’s based on the summer lifestyle. I’m bouncing between Sydney and Brisbane at the moment, so I see the faster pace of Sydney as very stimulating but enjoy the relaxation and calm of a walk along the river in Brisbane and the chance of spotting a dolphin.

What are you most proud of?
In 2012 I got the chance to do some volunteer conservation work with the black rhino in Zimbabwe helping an anti-poaching group do their thing. There are less than 3000 black rhino left in the wild and poachers slaughter two per day in Africa, just for the horn which has no medicinal value whatsoever. Although we may well see them disappear during our lifetime and it seems hopeless, I love that these guys do it anyway. Just because a fight seems hopeless doesn’t mean you should give up that fight. Rage against the dying of the light and all that.

What’s your life motto?
The best advice ever given was carved above the exit of the temple of the oracle of Delphi and it just said ‘Know thyself ‘. It seems like the simplest thing and it’s so easy to say and it fits perfectly on a bumper sticker and most people think they do and brush it off without further thought, but it’s the hardest thing to actually do in practice and takes a lifetime. I don’t think many of us ever succeed in that. The distractions are many. Pop culture is shiny distraction but also presents all the answers if you listen closely, such as Madonna quoting Plato/Socrates – ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ – in perfect harmony with the idea above. If the abundance of narcissistic social media examination we inflict on ourselves is any indication, our lives are now well worth living … or are we just scraping the surface or presenting the image we wish were true? The famous Nietzsche quote, ‘And those that were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those that could not hear the music’ is now famously inked into the skin of Megan Fox and thus spread to a new generation via the pages of tabloid gossip mags. Does the avenue for delivery matter, or will the truth always set you free?

Perk up …
Sourced Grocer, Teneriffe – awesome macchiatos!
Catch up … Alchemy, on the river in Brisbane City or an equally wonderful restaurant of the same name, Alchemia in Barcelona.
Be inspired … Mugaritz just outside of San Sebastian, Kasbah du Toubkal outside of Marrakech, scuba diving on the reef, Uluru and Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.


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