top of page

Gordon Bennett

Gordon Bennett

1955 - 2014

Born on the 9th of October 1955, Gordon Bennett attended the Nambour High School in Queensland. On the 3rd of June 2014, Mabo Day (22 years after the High Court of Australia overturned the legal fiction of terra nullius which had characterised Australian law with regards to land and title since the voyage of James Cook in 1770) Bennett passed away in his home from an unexpected heart attack.  Bennett’s prolific art career began after graduating from the Queensland College of Art, Brisbane, in 1988 at the age of 33.  During his childhood, Bennet's Aboriginal heritage was kept from him in an effort to protect him from racist taunts from within his working class community and society in general. 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 Pollockian 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 colonising 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 lived and worked 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 often been described 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.   

Gordon Bennett was a contemporary painter of national renown who also happened to be of Indigenous heritage. Simply labelling his work as ‘urban Aboriginal art’ would underestimate its place in much the same way as it would with Tracy Moffatt, Johnathon Jones or Brooke Andrew. His exhibition history and bibliography are amongst the most extensive of all Aboriginal artists. He was represented by Paul Greenaway in Adelaide, Peter Bellas in Brisbane, and Irene Sutton in Melbourne almost since the beginning of his career. For the last ten years or so of his career he also painted under the pseudonym ‘John Citizen’. At first these works started at a quarter the price of those issued under his real name, however once they attained the same price level he revealed the ruse and these are now ascribed to him personally. While only 65 of the 101 works presented on the secondary market have sold, only a small number of these have been major works. During 2007-2008 his success rate was 90%, way above his career average, with no less than eight works entering his ten highest results. Amongst them were four works which all exceeded the previous record price of $47,500 which Sotheby’s had set for Haptic Painting Explorer (The Inland Sea) 1993 in their June 2002 sale (Lot 165). This very large work was not one of his best and the record was smashed in July 2007 after Sotheby’s offered an absolute beauty, with a whopping presale estimate of $300,000-500,000. Their confidence was rewarded when Possession Island 1991, a triptych in which each panel measured 162 x 130 cm, sold for $384,000. While 2007 was a brilliant year for Bennett’s secondary market results, with eight works sold of which no less than six entered his top ten records, another four works failed to sell. Nevertheless it loosened the grip of seven collectors who put up works the following year and all but two were successful including the owners of Home Décor (Algebra) Boomerang, a 182.5 x 182.5 cm work which became the artist’s second highest result at $52,800 and Notes to Basquiat: Cut the Circle II, 2001, a slightly smaller work, which fell just short of this at $50,400. Somewhat unusually only one work, a print, was offered and sold in 2009 and 2010 brought similar results, despite Home Decor (Algebra) Boomerang being re-offered with a conservative estimate lower than it's previous sale price. More were on offer in 2011, with seven appearing at auction, of the two that found buyers Psychotopographical Landscape 1991 fetched an impressive $21,600, marking a new 8th place auction record. In 2012 Haptic Painting Explorer (The Inland Sea) 1993 was offered for sale following a decade since its last appearance at sale. Bonham's offered the work in its June sale of the Fehily collection of contemporary art (Lot 17). This time around it achieved more than twice its previous price when it sold for $108,000. Another notable success was for Australian Icon 1989, a work originally sold for $36,925 at Sotheby's in July 2003 (Lot 191). Resold by Sothebys in November 2012, it became the artist's 3rd highest result when it achieved $60,000. These two 2012 results ensured that Bennett became the 13th most successful AIAM100 artist for the year lifting his career standing from 36th to 34th. Only two works appeared in both 2014 and 2015 and these were both successful, selling at average prices significantly above his career average. A new 3rd highest result was recorded in 2015 with Home Decor (Preston + De Stijl = Citizen) Men with Weapons 1997 a massive 182.5 x 365 cm (overall) work selling in the sale of the collection of David Clarke AO at Sothebys in April (Lot No. 86). This was toppled by Notes to Basquiat (Ab) Original 1999, which was sold by Deutscher and Hackett's for $87,840 against an estimate $40,000-60,000 in 2016. In 2018, seven works of eight offered found new homes with Home Decor (Algebra) Relache 1998 ( 182.7 x 182.3 cm) selling for $54,900 and slipping into his top 10 results in 6th place. Overall, works by Gordon Bennett fall in to distinct periods, styles and subjects. Those with particularly pleasing layered imagery suggesting multiple interpretations have been far more successful than those in which the political message is too obvious and made at the expense of the image itself. A number of extremely powerful and important paintings lie at the centre of Bennett’s much-admired oeuvre. Lithographs and screen-prints have faired badly at auction, remaining either unsold, or selling in the vicinity of $500. He is amongst the best documented of all Aboriginal artists. Works like Haptic Painting Explorer and Possession Island are cases in point. There are other paintings by Bennett of this quality that are tightly held and very strong in the literature. On those odd occasions when these become available for sale, they will achieve stellar prices up to ten times his current average.

Explore our artworks

See some of our featured artworks below

bottom of page