Ideas and influences - Early work

1.1 Think and discuss – the personal and beyond

While personal experience has had a significant influence on Gordon Bennett’s art practice, the autobiographical aspects of his work are framed by bigger ideas and questions that have relevance and significance beyond Bennett’s own experience. Do you agree? Discuss with reference to a range of artworks by Bennett.

1.2 Interpretation and analysis – applying frameworks

Select two artworks by Gordon Bennett that interest you and discuss how the artist’s personal background, postcolonialism and/or postmodernism provide a framework for the meanings, ideas and/or formal qualities you find in the artworks.

1.3 Interpretation and analysis – comparative views

What is your personal interpretation of the meaning and ideas in The coming of the light or Untitled ?

In your discussion consider meanings and ideas associated with

  • the visual qualities and symbolism of art elements such as colour and shape
  • the symbolism and representation of subject matter/content (including text)
  • the appropriation of the work of other artists
  • the presentation of the artwork (ie. scale, format)

Compare your interpretation and analysis with others related to this artwork (this could be an interpretation by someone else in your class, or in a commentary on the work in gallery, book, catalogue etc. )

How does this interpretation and analysis compare to your own? Suggest reasons for the similarities and differences that you find.

What does this interpretation add to your understanding of the artwork?

1.4 Research activity – historical context and timeline

Create an illustrated and annotated timeline of the history of Australia since settlement. Include a selection of relevant artworks by Gordon Bennett to illustrate your timeline. Consider what dates/events should be included in your timeline and why. Research the significant dates/events referenced in Bennett’s artworks, including Myth of the Western Man (White man’s burden) 1992 for some ideas. Dates/events to consider and research include the 1967 Australian Referendum, the 1992 Mabo and 1996 Wik Native Title court cases, Paul Keating’s 1992 Redfern address.

This activity could be done as a group activity with different students researching different dates/events and presenting talks to the class about their significance. The timeline could be presented in hardcopy for display in the classroom, or as an ICT project incorporating images and audio.

1.5 Think and discuss – questions and complexities in Bennett’s work

Bennett’s pictures leave us with questions rather than answers, with complexities rather than simplicities – as if the origins of truth, identity and ideology are in metaphors and signs rather than in things, and hence are layered and relative Ian McLean 1

Discuss in relation to selected artworks by Bennett that you believe reveal questions and complexities, rather than answers and simplicities. Explain how you believe Bennett communicates and presents questions and complexities in his work.

1.6 Think and discuss – art and history

[Bennett] seeks to expose the shadows of official ‘history’, to track its doubles and contradictions, not in order to repudiate the European vision but to map a postcolonial future… Ian McLean 2

What does this comment suggest to you about the purpose of Bennett’s questioning of history? Discuss with reference to one or more works by Bennett.


  1. Ian McLean ‘Gordon Bennett’s existentialism’ in Ian McLean & Gordon Bennett, The art of Gordon Bennett, Craftsman House, Roseville East, 1996, p. 69
  2. Ian McLean ‘Gordon Bennett’s existentialism’, p. 71

Exploring Identity

2.1 Create and make – What the hell are coloured people anyway?

  • Collect and find photographs of a wide variety of people of different ethnicities, cultures and physical appearances.
  • Scan these into the computer using a photographic software package like ‘Photoshop’.
  • Place each photograph on a separate layer, overlap and morph or merge all the portraits into one image.
  • What sort of identity does this create?
  • What features are dominant? Why?
  • Experiment with enhancing or diminishing different layers to create a distinctive character.
  • Using a painting technique, create a finished artwork based on one or some of these experiments.

2.2 Research and investigate – Western science and Indigenous people and culture

Investigate the theories and ideas associated with anthropology, ethnography and phrenology. How have these sciences influenced the perception and understanding of Indigenous people and cultures?

2.3 Think and discuss – Australian identity

  • Collect a range of images (both art and media sources) that depict characters that are perceived or presented as ‘typically Australian’.
  • What ‘typically Australian’ qualities are associated with these characters?
  • Are these qualities perceived as positive? Why?
  • Do these qualities reflect the reality of what it means to be Australian (ie. are they representative of different cultural identities)?
  • Explain how these images might have influenced perceptions of Australian identity?

2.4 Explore and respond – self-portraits

  • Choose a self–portrait by Gordon Bennett that interests you.
  • How does this work compare with conventional self-portraits?
  • What makes this artwork a self-portrait?
  • What evidence can you see in this self-portrait of Bennett linking issues of personal identity with broader issues related to history and culture?


  1. Felicity Allen, ‘Gordon Bennett interviewed by Felicity Allen’ in the Herald Sun, 29 August 2000

Strategies and Signs

3.1 Think and discuss – art and understanding

Art can encourage people to rethink personal beliefs and positions. Do you agree?

Discuss with reference to selected artworks by Gordon Bennett.

3.2 Research and investigate – the representation of space in different cultures

  • Research the representation of three dimensional space in selected artforms of several different cultures (ie. Egyptian painting or relief sculpture, Chinese scroll paintings, Aboriginal painting of the Western Desert.
  • What systems and/or conventions are used by each culture to represent three dimensional space?
  • How do these systems/conventions reflect values and ideas important to that culture?
  • Different members of the class could be assigned different cultural traditions to research and then prepare an illustrated presentation for the class.

3.3 Research and investigate – The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith

  • Read The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally (1972) or view the film version of the book directed by Fred Schepisi (1978).
  • What key themes and ideas are explored in the book/film?
  • What strategies have been used to communicate and explore these themes and ideas in the book/film?
  • How do the key themes/ideas and strategies in the book/film compare to those used by Gordon Bennett in early work such as Outsider?

3.4 Think and discuss – a focus on titles

The titles of Bennett’s artworks reflect the artist’s awareness of the power of words/language to suggest meaning. Examine a range of Bennett’s artworks and their titles and discuss how the titles might provide a useful starting point for analysing and interpreting the images.

3.5 Explore and respond – engaging the viewer

Throughout his career Bennett has used many different strategies to engage the viewer in his work. With reference to at least two artworks, identify and explain some of the strategies and techniques you believe Bennett has used to engage the viewer.

You might consider, scale, materials and techniques, perceptual effects.

3.6 Create and make – exploring binary opposites

  • Find out more about binary opposites and identify some binary opposites that you believe have had a significant influence on your understanding of the world.
  • Brainstorm ideas and meanings associated with these binary opposites and create a mindmap to show how they have influenced your perception and understanding of the world.
  • Create an artwork in a medium of your choice that highlights how the meanings, values and ideas associated with these binary opposites influence perception and understanding.
  • Aim to use a variety of strategies in your work to engage the viewer in the issues and questions you are interested in exploring in relation to these binary opposites.

Borrowed images and styles

4.1 Research and Investigate – Comparative Ideas

Bennett has often used dots in his artworks as part of his investigation of issues of identity, and history.

  • Georges Seurat (1859–1973)
  • Clifford Possum Tjapaljarri (1943–2002)

Identify other artists who have used dots in their work (ie. Lichtenstein 1923–1987). Discuss different approaches/ideas evident in the way each artist uses dots in their work.

4.2 Explore and Respond – Perspectives

Gordon Bennett’s Possession Island 1991, highlights the influence that visual images have on our understanding of history, and the way that visual images often reflect the values of the social / historical context in which they are made. Discuss with reference to Possession Island.

Compare and contrast Possession Island with one or more of the following artworks:

  • Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784
  • Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
  • Honore Daumier, The uprising, 1860

What does this comparison reveal about the relationship between visual images, culture and history?

4.3 Research and Investigate – The nine richochets

Research references to existing images in Gordon Bennett’s The nine richochets (Fall down black fella, jump up white fella) 1990.

How does Bennett’s use of appropriation reflect an interest in some of the moral and ethical issues associated with this practice. Include in your discussion reference to Bennett’s appropriation of The nine shots 1985 by Imants Tillers.

4.4 Research Activity – Appropriation

Research other artists who use appropriation and select an artist whose work interests you. Compare and contrast this artist’s use of appropriation with that of Gordon Bennett. Include reference to specific examples in your discussion.

4.5 Create & Make – Appropriating Identity

List some of your own qualities and attributes.
Using this list, find a range of artworks that you could appropriate to help communicate your personal identity visually.
Explore a range of ideas and media within your work.

Art Practice and Industry Issues

5.1 Explore and respond – focus on stylistic shifts

Bennett has continued to work in new ways with materials, techniques and images throughout his career, resisting any classification or confinement according to style.  At the same time his work demonstrates great conceptual unity and interconnectedness.
Discuss with reference to a selection of at least three works, clearly identifying stylistic shifts, and evidence of conceptual unity.

5.2 Think and discuss – issues of interpretation

People tend to focus on the emotional aspect rather than the conceptual when interpreting my work, and that bothers me.  Even when the starting point for a work is an emotive one, I believe I conceptually examine the ideas behind the emotion and extrapolate from there Gordon Bennett1

What aspects of Bennett’s works might viewers focus on as emotional?  Discuss with reference to examples in at least two works by Bennett.
What evidence can you find of Bennett conceptually examining the ideas behind the emotion, and extrapolating from there?  Discuss with reference to the same works.

5.3 Research and investigate – John Citizen historical/social context

John Citizen is an artist for our times: he reflects back to us citizens the white Australia of the post–Keating era. Ian McLean 2

Who was Paul Keating? What values or ideas characterise the post–Keating era in Australia? How might John Citizen be seen as reflection of the post Keating era?

5.4 Research and investigate – Recent work

Bennett’s recent abstract paintings reflect links to a range of artists including Australians Robert McPherson, Emily Kam Kngwarray and Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, and International artist Frank Stella. Find examples of the work of these artists. Based on your understanding of Bennett’s motivations for the abstract paintings, outlined in the quote in the text, suggest what may have interested Bennett about the work of these artists.

5.5 Explore and respond – Recent work

…while Bennett may have attempted, in recent years, to disconnect from the politics of his earlier practice, there is also a sense within these paintings, of the impossibility of such a task. For given the artist’s own history of ‘engagement’, these works are not considered ‘simple’ abstract paintings, but abstract paintings by ‘Gordon Bennett’; coloured or even tainted by, the history, concerns and associations of the artist’s earlier work. Kelly Gellatly 3

What is your personal interpretation of the abstract paintings? Is this response informed by Bennett’s  work?  Explain.

5.6 Think and discuss – context for work

One of the long–term goals for my work is to have my paintings returned to the pages of text books from which many of the images in them originated, where they may act as sites around which a more ‘enlightened’ kind of knowledge may circulate; perhaps a knowledge that is understood from the outset as culturally relative Gordon Bennett 4

What does Bennett’s goal for his work suggest to you about how he views the role of art?
Would you include work by Gordon Bennett in a text book on Australian history. Why?

Possession Island 1991 was recently purchased by the Historic Houses Trust of NSW.

Why might such an organisation purchase this painting?

5.7 Think and discuss – artists’ rights

  • Why do artists such as Gordon Bennett and Tracey Moffatt (b.1960) systematically decline to participate in exhibitions of Aboriginal art?
  • What legal, moral and ethical rights does an artist have to control the way their work is seen and viewed in exhibitions, books or online.
  • Are these rights adequate?  Why?


  1. Conversation – Bill Wright talks to Gordon Bennett’, in Kelly Gellatly with contributions by Bill Wright, Justin Clemens and Jane Devery, Gordon Bennett (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 2007, p. 98
  2. Ian McLean, ‘Who is John Citizen?’ Greenaway Art Gallery, 2006
  3. Kelly Gellatly ‘Citizen in the making’, in Kelly Gellatly, p. 24
  4. Gordon Bennett, ‘The Manifestoe’, Ian McLean & Gordon Bennett, The art of Gordon Bennett, Craftsman House, Roseville East, 1996, p. 60