Gordon Bennett, born 1955, died of natural causes on 3 June 2014. I did not know Gordon Bennett personally, and his quiet existence meant that he was not in regular attendance at events and exhibition openings. He was an artist whose practice can be seen to have changed contemporary Australian art in highly significant ways.
His importance as an artist was immense. He came to art as a second career, enrolling at Queensland College of Art in 1986, graduating (BFA) in 1988. Richard Bell wrote, “Art had become a tool to articulate the denial of his Aboriginal identity” (The Guardian, Sat 14 June 2014). It emerged strongly in his art making from the beginning. Jim Baker recalls going to Bennett’s studio with Peter Bellas (before Bellas offered to represent Bennett), with the quality of his work and strength of his vision immediately apparent. Jim recalls tough imagery – included Aboriginals and nooses, referring to deaths in custody and other indigenous issues – excoriating his paintings from the start. (Baker, at the time an active contemporary art collector, acquired a number of Bennett’s paintings on the spot.)
Bennett was insistent that his work should be seen within the realm of contemporary art (he did not want to be viewed through the lens of his Aboriginality). Yet in both contexts he was a leader and the toughness of his aesthetic and the content of his work paved the way for the many significant artists who have followed, so many from a Brisbane base.
Simon Wright’s statement noted that Bennett’s, “… sudden and tragic death comes at a time when his work was finding new audiences internationally, most recently through the Berlin Biennale (2014) and Documenta 13 (2012). He has made an invaluable contribution to Australian art and culture, bringing attention to the construction of individual and collective identity through the manipulation of ‘accepted’ historical representation. His work examined issues of race, identity, colonial regimes of socialisation and citizenship within the globalised context, and figured keenly in critical debates about contemporary art from the late 1980s to the present. He resisted categorisation of his work as Aboriginal art at a time when it would have been easier to acquiesce to institutional pressure, or framing by popular media. His point was to contest that all artists should be treated as equal, regardless of race or heritage, and that art’s real power lay in its potential to communicate directly with its receiver. These positions were rooted in his sense of humanism, based on the hope of mutual respect.”
(Wright, email Vale Gordon Bennett, 6 June 2014)