This section explores some strategies and signs used by Gordon Bennett in his artwork. They are part of his investigation and interrogation of issues and ideas related to identity, history, and culture. This includes a consideration of some of the signs used to represent the values, systems and structures associated with language and visual representation, which shape our understanding and perception of identity, and history and culture.
I decided that I was in a very interesting position: My mind and body had been effectively colonised by Western culture, and yet my Aboriginality, which had been historically, socially and personally repressed, was still part of me and I was obtaining the tools and language to explore it on my own terms. In a conceptual sense I was liberated from the binary prison of self and other; the wall had disintegrated but where was I? In a real sense I was still living in the suburbs, and in a world where there were very real demands to be one thing or the other. There was still no space for me to simply ‘be’.
I decided that I would attempt to create a space by adopting a strategy of intervention and disturbance in the field of representation through my art. Gordon Bennett 1
Bennett’s interest in adopting a strategy of intervention and disturbance in the field of representation is manifest in many different ways in his art. From early in his career he was inspired by theories and ideas associated with postmodernism. He used strategies such as deconstruction and appropriation to present audiences with new ways of viewing and understanding the images and narratives that have shaped the nation’s history and culture.
Francisco Jose Goya Y Lucientes
The disasters of war c.1810–20 (1863 published)
Plate 36: Tampoco (No more)
bound volume of 80 plates etching, aquatint, lans, burnisher, drypoint and burin
18.0 x 25.5 cm (plate) (variable); 24.4 x 33.2 cm (sheet)
25.3 x 34.5 x 3.7 cm (volume)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1966
born Australia 1955
oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas
290.5 x 179.5 cm
The University of Queensland, Brisbane
Acquired with the assistance of the Visual Arts and Crafts Board of the Australia Council, 1989
© Courtesy of the artist
The ‘grotesque’ also interested Bennett as a means of disrupting conventional ways of seeing and understanding. The grotesque in art is generally associated with bizarre, ugly or disturbing imagery. Such imagery has often been used by artists to unsettle the viewer and present new perspectives on familiar subjects. The Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828) used the power of the grotesque in the Disasters of war series, which depicts some of the atrocities that took place in Spain during the War of Independence (1814-18). The graphic detail in these images, including mutilated, tortured bodies, continue to confront viewers today with the realities of human behaviour and suffering in war.
Bennett’s use of the grotesque is evident in Outsider, 1988, which makes reference to two paintings by the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) – Vincent’s bedroom in Arles 1888, and Starry night 1889. Outsider depicts
…a decapitated Aboriginal figure standing over Vincent van Gogh’s bed, with red paint streaming skywards to join with the vortex of Vincent’s starry night. Gordon Bennett 2
Outsider was painted one hundred years after van Gogh made his celebrated paintings. Bennett painted Outsider in his final year of art college, when Australia was in the grip of Bicentenary celebrations.
In Outsider the energy and intensity associated with van Gogh’s expressive brushstrokes and brilliant colour contrasts are powerfully explosive . Van Gogh’s original bedroom evokes a feeling of peace and harmony. In Bennett’s painting the bedroom becomes the site of violent conflict that involves complex and intersecting personal and cultural histories. The headless figure of the Aboriginal man has an animated, spectre- like presence that haunts the scene. A gush of blood red paint shoots into the sky from his body. Bloody handprints are stamped across the walls. This imagery alludes to the violent suppression of Indigenous people and culture in the nation’s history that was thrown into focus by the Bicentenary celebrations. The circular forms in the sky are inspired by the brilliant bursts of light in van Gogh’s Starry night. They absorb the flow of ‘blood’ and recall the symbols often used in Aboriginal ‘dot painting’ of the Western Desert to represent significant sites. The pale, marble- like sculpted heads on the bed remind us of the Classical art and learning that has been privileged in Western culture above other forms of art and learning, including those associated with Indigenous cultures. With eyes closed, these heads appear as blind, mute and lifeless witnesses to the surrounding conflict and struggle.
Although Bennett soon moved towards what he describes as a ‘cooler’ more overtly conceptual 3 approach, he continued to use elements of the grotesque as a way of disturbing and disrupting conventional ways of seeing and understanding, as seen in his Bounty Hunter series, 1991.
Postmodernism is about language. How it controls, how it determines meaning, and how we try to exert control through language. About how language restricts, closes down, insists that it stands for some thing. Postmodernism is about how ‘we’ are defined within that language, and within specific historical, social, cultural matrices. Ronald W. Neperud 4
As children we become socialised into a particular societal structure, a network of relationships to, and ideas about, the world that is constructed by language. Indeed language may be seen as the cement that binds and maintains the social organisation of a particular society or cultural group. Language defines the invisible boundaries or limits to the understanding of the world of experience. It does not constitute a natural inventory of the world, but rather language is a system of conventional and arbitrary sounds and symbols that presents the culturally relative subjective human perception of it. Gordon Bennett 5
I do believe that art can function to expand one’s consciousness, to act as a catalyst perhaps, to exceed the boundaries of language and how it defines and limits our understanding of the world in which we live. Gordon Bennett 6
Engaging in ideas and theories associated with postmodernism, focused Bennett’s attention on systems and structures that shape our identity and understanding of the world. Early works such as The coming of the light reveal his awareness of the power of language to define and control perception and understanding. In this and many later works, Bennett uses the symbolism of children’s building blocks and/or the basic alphabet letters ABC to signify language and the fact that it is a learned and culturally specific system. These same basic alphabet letters also appear in many of Bennett’s artworks as the first letter of racist terms, such as ‘A bo’, ‘B oong’, ‘C oon’. Bennett often heard such terms used in relation to Aboriginal people. In using these words in his own work he exposes the power that words have to define and confine perception and understanding.
It is the collapse of the conceptual gap between the binary opposites of self/other, civilized/savage, sophisticated/primitive, or perhaps more appropriately its gradual disintegration and my process of integration that forms the substratum of my life and work. Gordon Bennett 7
According to theories associated with binary opposites our ideas about the world are informed by our understanding of pairs of opposite words, rather than by single words. For example, masculine/feminine, good/bad, light/dark . Binary opposites may seem ‘natural’ but they are influenced by cultural and social factors. The meanings that develop around binary opposites in a culture/society, and the concepts of difference they embody, can have a significant influence on perception and understanding. For example, stereotypes are often constructed and maintained in a culture because of the way difference is defined by particular binary opposites, such as girl/boy, old/young, rich/poor. We often judge or perceive one of a pair of binary opposites more positively than the other.
born Australia 1955
Altered body print (Shadow figure howling at the moon) 1994
synthetic polymer paint and vinyl paint on canvas and synthetic polymer paint on board
(1) 182.0 x 182.0 cm; (2) 59.5 x 59.5 cm x 8.0 cm
The Paul Eliadis Collection of Contemporary Australian Art, Brisbane
© Courtesy of the artist
Photography: Phillip Andrews
Bennett is aware of the role binary opposites, such as self/other, play in constructing personal and cultural identity. This is evident in many of his works, including Outsider. The imagery in this painting focuses on binary opposites, including the Aboriginal figure and various symbols of European and Indigenous art and culture . These binary opposites – insider/outsider, black/white, primitive/civilised – have had a powerful influence on perceptions of European and Indigenous people and culture.
In Altered body print (Shadow figure howling at the moon) Bennett focuses more explicitly on binary opposites and the associations they trigger. Lists of words draw the viewer into a game of word association. The central figure is based on a monoprint made from the artist’s body. The distorted and exaggerated features of the form incorporate qualities that appear animal and human, male and female. Other aspects of the image, including the flat, stylised shapes of the head, reflect connections to both Western abstract art and Indigenous art traditions. These qualities expose some of the complications that arise from understandings built on binary opposites.
…while he works in a figurative mode, he inserts text, diagrams and illustrations which break the magic spell of the autonomous three- dimensional space of Western painting. Thus Bennett does not repudiate the figurative tradition of Western art, but deconstructs it. Ian McLean 8
In his art Bennett adopts a strategy of intervention and disturbance in the field of representation. This has involved working critically with many of the conventions that have played a dominant role in visual representation in Western art. These include conventions related to symbols, styles and organising systems such as perspective and grids.
born Australia 1955
Triptych: Requiem, Of grandeur, Empire 1989
oil and photograph on canvas (triptych)
(a) 120.0 x 120.0 cm; (b) 200.0 x 150.0 cm; (c) 120.0 x 120.0 cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased, 1989 under the Contemporary Art Acquisition Program
with funds from Hill & Taylor, Solicitors through
the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation
© Courtesy of the artist
Italian active 1320, died c.1358–62
The Crucifixion c.1349
oil on wood panel
96.8 x 67.7 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1949
The triptych form of painting is most commonly associated with the altarpiece paintings made for Christian churches. Altarpiece paintings traditionally occupied a central position in a church. They communicated important Christian stories to the congregation. The pair of outstretched arms and the diagrammatic outline of a cross- like form in the central panel of Triptych: Requieum, Of grandeur, Empire, 1989 alludes to the figure of Christ crucified on the cross, a common subject in Christian art. In many images of the crucifixion, including the painting by Veneziano illustrated, Mary Magdalene is kneeling at the foot of the cross washing and anointing Christ’s feet in an act of devotion . However, the cross- like form in Bennett's painting has an image of Bennett’s mother, kneeling before it, with a cleaning rag in her hand, recalling her early training and work as a domestic servant under the government’s ‘protection’. More broadly, it recalls the lives of many young Aboriginal women who followed a similar destiny. It is based on a newspaper photograph of Bennett’s mother and another young Aboriginal woman, dressed in crisp white uniforms, polishing the elaborate architectural fittings in a grand interior of a homestead in Singleton. Bennett has included the framed photograph in the panel, to the right of the painted figure.
This painting combines the story of Bennett’s mother, and other young Aboriginal women in the care of the government or church, with the Christian story. Here Bennett raises questions and matters about the stories that define us personally and culturally, and about the complex relationship that has existed between the Christian church and Indigenous cultures through history.
The background colours and features of the landscape in each panel of Requiem, Of grandeur, Empire suggest a vast Australian desert . However Bennett’s illusionistic representation of the rugged terrain and billowing clouds reflect a style of painting traditionally associated with European Romantic art. The grand Romantic landscapes of Western art were intended to inspire the viewer with their dramatic beauty and effects of illusion. But in Bennett’s painting disparate diagrams, symbols and images disrupt the illusion, presenting the landscape as a site where many ideas and viewpoints compete.
Looking closely at the central panel we realise that the luminous ‘sky’ is described with the dots that Bennett used in early works to signify Aboriginal art. Roundels relating to symbols that denote significant sites in Aboriginal Western Desert dot painting also appear. They are strategically and prominently placed at the centre top of each panel, each radiating an aura of light created by white dots. Against the background of the illusionistic representation of the landscape they capture our attention, alerting us to the fact that there are other ways of representing and understanding the landscape not just the European perspectives that have dominated our cultural history.
The first panel of Bennett’s triptych, Requiem, depicts Trugannini (c. 1812 – 1876), a Palawa woman from Tasmania. In her lifetime, Trugannini witnessed the systematic and often violent destruction of her culture and people. She was once thought to be ‘the last surviving Tasmanian Aborigine’. She looms large over the landscape in Requiem, as she does in the post- contact history of the nation as a symbol of the devastating impact that colonisation had on Indigenous people and culture.
In the third panel of Bennett’s triptych, Empire, a Roman triumphal arch frames a stately figure. From a distance the figure resembles a sculpture of a heroic Classical figure. On closer inspection we see it is an image of an Aboriginal man. This image is based on a photograph by JW Lindt (1845 – 1926). Lindt created many photographic portraits of Aboriginal subjects. He carefully staged each image in his studio, posing the sitter against a painted backdrop. He used weapons or gum tree branches as props, to construct an image that reflected European ideas of Aboriginal ‘types’. The Classical style and pose of the figure in the panel Empire, and the draped animal skins and weapons, reflect a stereotype of the ‘noble savage’ that was widely influential in how people viewed Indigenous people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is strong symbolism associated with the placement of the figure beneath the Roman triumphal arch. Traditionally these arches were built by the Romans to celebrate victory in war. Victorious soldiers triumphantly and ceremoniously paraded under such arches, sometimes accompanied by their captives.
As the foundation of a system of representation, perspective produces an illusion of depth on an essentially flat two dimensional surface by the use of invisible lines that converge to a vanishing point. The vanishing point may also be understood as the point from which these lines extend outward past the picture plane to include the viewer in the pictorial space, positioned as observer of a self contained harmonious whole. Gordon Bennett 9
The linear diagram that frames the kneeling figure of Bennett’s mother in the central panel of Triptych: Requiem, Of grandeur, Empire, and the diagrams in the lower sections of the two side panels, are typical of illustrations that explain the principles of linear perspective. Western art has a long tradition of creating an illusion of three- dimensional space on a flat surface. But the mathematical formulation of linear perspective in the fifteenth century had a powerful influence on the representation of space in Western art from this point.
Linear perspective is a system for organising visual information. Bennett employs this system using diagrams often labelled with acronyms, such as CVP (central vanishing point), that refer to key features of the system. Often the basic alphabet letters ABC also appear with Bennett’s perspective diagrams, highlighting the learned and culturally specific nature of the alphabet and linear perspective. By overlaying perspective diagrams on images constructed according to the conventions of perspective, such as the landscape in Requiem, Bennett reminds us of the learned and culturally specific systems that influence knowledge and perception. His use of the perspective diagrams to ‘frame’ and ‘contain’ the figure of his mother alludes to the impact the values and systems of European culture have had on the lives of Indigenous people.
Bennett also uses several other strategies to disrupt the illusionistic representation of the landscape in Triptych: Requiem, Of grandeur, Empire. For example, the framed newspaper photograph that sits on the surface of the central panel, and the black footprints that track across the top of each panel, shatter the illusion of the three dimensions created in the landscape painting, and visually reinforce the flatness of the painting surface. The black footprints, along with other visual signs, also signify the presence of Indigenous people and culture in what appears to be an ‘empty’ landscape.
Bennett uses perspective diagrams and visual symbols in Triptych: Requiem, Of grandeur, Empire . Symbols such as these highlight his awareness and use of visual images, forms and elements as signs. Like words, visual images, forms and elements are powerful signifiers of meaning. Our understanding of the meanings associated with visual signs is linked to cultural codes, conventions and experience. For example, the association between the colour red and blood or violence is strongly influenced by the many representations and descriptions we are exposed to in Western culture, in which blood or violence is described/represented using the colour red.
There are many visual signs that recur throughout Bennett’s artworks, including:
Each of these signs brings significant meaning to Bennett’s work and plays an important role in his investigation of issues and ideas related to identity, understanding and perception.
born Australia 1955
Interior (Abstract eye) 1991
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
185.2 x 185.0 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria by the Moët & Chandon Australian Art Foundation Fellows Collection, Governor, 2000
© Courtesy of the artist
The grid, with its characteristic ordered mathematical structure, appears in a range of Bennett’s artworks in a variety of forms. In The coming of the light, 1987 the high- rise buildings that frame the white faces are represented as grid-like forms. In Interior (Abstract eye), 1991 a diagrammatic grid overlays an image depicting a group of Aboriginal people in the landscape, seemingly appropriated from a social studies text. In the Home décorseries Bennett uses gridded compositions that refer to the paintings of Dutch artistPiet Mondrian (1872 –1944). Mondrian aspired to create a form of ‘pure’ abstract art based on the grid and a controlled use of art elements, including primary colours. Bennett’s use of the grid in these and other artworks suggests questions and ideas. However, in each image the grid effectively highlights the controlled order and structure of knowledge systems and learning in Western culture, and how these frame and influence perception and understanding of self, history and culture.
Dots have been an important element in many of Bennett’s paintings as a powerful signifier of Aboriginal art, for example Triptych: Requiem, Of grandeur, Empire. Although there are many forms of Aboriginal art, dot painting is widely seen as synonymous with Aboriginal art since the late 1970s, when the dot painting of the Western Desert attracted unprecedented national and international interest in Aboriginal art. Bennett’s use of dots highlights the way Aboriginal cultural identity continues to be defined and confined by Western ideas of Aboriginality. However, for Bennett, dot painting also became a powerful expression of the connections between nature and culture, which are integral to representation in Aboriginal art.
The dots in Bennett’s paintings also refer to the dots that characterise mechanical photographic reproductions, through which many of the images that inform our understanding of the world are reproduced and circulated. The dot screen involved in this process reduces all images to a pattern of tonal dots. In the ‘eye’ detail of Interior (Abstract eye) we can see how a pattern of tonal dots coalesces to create an image. Bennett’s use of the eye detail in the tonal dots of mechanical photographic reproduction brings to light the role photographic reproductions play in communicating ideas, and that our understanding of these images involves both our eye and our mind.
|1.||Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe’ in Ian McLean & Gordon Bennett, The Art of Gordon Bennett, Craftsman House, 1996, pp. 32–33|
|2.||Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe’, p. 33|
|3.||Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe’, p. 34|
|4.||Ronald W. Neperud ‘Transitions in art education: A search for meaning’ in Spiral Art Education, University of Illinois at Chicago http://www.uic.edu/classes/ad/ad382/sites/AEA/AEA_05/AEA_05a.html accessed 6.12.07|
|5.||Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe’, pp. 37– 38|
|6.||Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe’, p. 53|
|7.||Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe’, p. 9|
|8.||Ian McLean, ‘Gordon Bennett’s existentialism’ in Ian McLean & Gordon Bennett, The Art of Gordon Bennett, p. 73|
|9.||Gordon Bennett, &‘The manifest toe&’, pp. 35, 36|