Gordon Bennett’s prolific art career began after graduating from the Queensland College of Art, Brisbane, in 1988 at the age of 33. The slow realization of his shame at age 11 of his part-Aboriginal heritage was a result of a white working-class upbringing. This led increasingly to Bennett’s dissatisfaction with the received histories of Australia and stereotypical castings of identity. Always an avid reader, Bennett found that the postmodernist intellectual and artistic circles of the late eighties opened for him new perspectives on the narratives upon which our culture is built. He began to fragment and juxtapose his visual references. In his early works, events, icons, and texts were thrown together amid the drips and splatters of Pollock style paint. This confrontational meshing of imagery was driven by a strongly felt sense of injustice at the ‘homogenizing impulse’ of the colonizing white culture; a culture that promoted and maintained itself at the expense of Aboriginal suffering and displacement. Bennett sought to retrieve a history of discarded memories and moments and install them alongside the heroic ideal. In Myth of the Western Man (White Man’s burden) 1993, the explorer, a familiar figure in primary school textbooks, staunchly holds a blue pole against a number of engulfing elements. The swirling paint is interrupted by dates that flag significant events in Aboriginal history. The pole pays homage to the reforms of the Whitlam era, including the purchase of Pollock’s controversial Blue Poles for the National Gallery of Australia as well as the end of the white Australia policy and the beginning of land rights and self-determination for Aboriginal people.
Bennett’s early fascination with Pollock furthered his investigation of the structures that assign and reinforce identity. Like other artists (Basquiat, Mondrian) whom he has ‘quoted’ in order to explore certain modes of thought, Pollock usurped the established principles of Western art and prompted his audience towards new ways of seeing. Fluid, interlacing and dripping lines dissolve perspectival space, dismantling the structured grid system with its central, controlling gaze. This colonizing view upon the world has served to invalidate the Dreaming journeys and sites of Aboriginal culture, deeply fracturing land-based spiritual beliefs that traditionally constituted their culture and sense of identity. During his career Bennett has sought to draw attention to the problematic core notions that underwrite our sense of subjectivity generating global problems, most especially in the context of race relations. Rather than removing himself from the real world of things, actions, and events in his study of history and its sustaining ideology, Gordon Bennett surveys the scene for signs, staging a theatre of images drawn from other images that twist back on themselves in Shakespearian-like irony and figurative turns. Apparent meanings are undone in the search for deeper meanings. Yet these are not necessarily more meaningful in this emotionally charged layering of narratives. In his 9/11 series (2001), New York becomes the symbolic site where the long and explosive history of white imperialism once again rises to the surface, flashing around the world on television screens, over and over. In 2003 he began works concerned with terrorism and the war in Iraq. Opposing relationships become a continuous subterfuge of dissolving appearances; now the ‘other’ can never be safely known or controlled.
Gordon Bennett rapidly established himself in the Australian art world. He lives and works in Brisbane. His polemic works are well represented in major galleries and private collections. In 1991 he won the prestigious Moet & Chandon Australian Art Fellowship. For many years he also painted under the pseudonym of John Citizen preferring not to disclose his alias until these works reached the same level of prices as those created under his real name. His paintings are both complex and provocative having been described more than once as ‘in your face’. Like the improvising, sampling and remixing of modern jazz or rap music, with its startling, syncopated rhythms, Bennett’s compositions cause one to step back and, only from the safety of distance, re-enter his cacophony of images, words and gestural paint which stakes out a new expressive space. Here the stories left out of our schoolbook history strive to unfold and their unsung characters reach into our field of vision. In Bennett’s early works, this is the story of Indigenous Australia and his own personal place within it while later, it is a story that involves all of modern western society as it seeks, often violently, to colonize the globe.