Submitted Review

‘Unfinished Business’ The Art of Gordon Bennett

  • QAGOMA • Brisbane

  • 06 November 2020—20 March 2021

  • Hamish Sawyer • Published 01 December 2020

  • Commissioned Article

Included in a display of works on paper halfway through ‘Unfinished Business’ is an uncharacteristically quiet, yet profound example of Gordon Bennett’s oeuvre, comprising a single line of text in the artist’s handwritten script. ‘No future without a past’ it says, encapsulating the artist’s singular project of confronting Australia’s colonial legacy through a personal exploration of how identity is constructed and reinforced by cultural and historical conditions.

Even after his untimely death in 2014, Bennett remains one of Australia’s most consequential artists. His complex, multi-layered images appropriating the work of artists including Jackson Pollock and Jean-Michel Basquiat and his mastery of postcolonial and postmodern theory firmly situated Bennett’s work within an international context from the moment he emerged in the late 1980s, rather than limiting itself to uniquely Australian or Indigenous narratives.

This exhibition, curated by the gallery’s Zara Stanhope (who worked with Bennett on the 2004 Heide Museum of Modern Art exhibition Three Colours) brings together 200 works including key works from public collections, as well as rarely seen paintings, objects and installations drawn from the artist’s estate. It is the first major exhibition of Bennett’s work since the National Gallery of Victoria’s survey in 2007 and represents the first opportunity for the artist’s late return to figurative subject matter (after an extended period of making the abstract ‘Stripe’ paintings) to be viewed alongside earlier series.

‘I am trying to paint the one painting that will change the world…’

The aforementioned display of works on paper forms the physical and conceptual centrepiece of Unfinished Business, demonstrating the importance of drawing for Bennett in working out imagery and ideas for subsequent paintings. Text is also used to emphasise Bennett’s own voice throughout the exhibition, with the words ‘a black history’ repeated across the floor of one gallery; as well as several quotes from the artist’s writings stenciled onto gallery walls.

Looking at selected paintings from the artist’s final two series, Abstraction and Home Décor (After M. Preston) which merge Bennett’s exploration of identity with broader issues of nationhood and community, it is striking to note how painterly these late works are, a reminder that despite his prodigious and varied output, Bennett was ultimately a painter. As one of the pull-quotes stenciled onto a gallery wall declares: “I am trying to paint the one painting that will change the world…”

The exhibition deftly balances the sheer scale, scope and evolution of Bennett’s practice, with prioritizing the artist’s own voice and insight into his process. One of the most significant exhibitions of a Queensland artist’s work to be presented in the Gallery of Modern Art to date, ‘Unfinished Business’ is a must-see exhibition that will reward the viewer with multiple visits before it ends next March.