Gordon Bennett: Be Polite is an exhibition of largely unseen works on paper by one of Australia’s most visionary and critical artists, Gordon Bennett (1955–2014). This is the first exhibition of Gordon Bennett’s work since his untimely death in 2014. The IMA’s Executive Directors Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh have worked closely with the Estate of Gordon Bennett to curate this selection of works that comprise drawing, painting, watercolour, poetry, and essays from the early 1990s through to the early 2000s. Though rarely seen in exhibition contexts, Bennett’s drawing and script form the foundation of his practice. Paper is the site where imagery, words, and ideas often found their first expression before being combined into the large-scale conceptual paintings for which Bennett is known. Despite their relatively small scale, works in Be Polite embrace rich layers of Western and Australian Indigenous art history and contemporary politics, a direction Bennett played a leading role in developing throughout the 1980s and continued to explore in his successful career.
Like many artists, Gordon Bennett worked in a sketchbook to test out ideas and imagery quickly, and then carefully refined his concepts, style and visual language on the page before moving to acrylic on canvas paintings. He produced hundreds of sketches in basic materials, mostly pencil, ballpoint pen, chalk pastel, felt tip pens, gouache, and watercolour on standard notebooks. Often, these drawings were scanned and digitally reworked to create complex layers of images for his paintings.
The small works on paper and sketchbooks that appear here on display were never intended for public exhibition, yet tell us something important about Bennett’s artistic process. Many are significant works of art in their own right. Some of these simple pen-and-paper works appear to be self-conscious about how inexpensive and humble they are. This self-reflexivity is a common approach in Gordon Bennett’s work, and as an audience, we often feel part of an intimate (and funny) conversation that the artist is having with his own work.
Gordon Bennett was very interested in systems of pictorial representation and how knowledge and meaning is conveyed through visual means. In particular, Bennett saw perspective as essential not only to how Europeans represent the world around them through pictures, but more importantly, to the European worldview: to how they see the world and themselves and others within it. Similar to his interest in visual representation, Bennett saw written and verbal language as an imperfect system of communication that powerfully constructs and shapes perspective.
Publication and Touring
The publication Gordon Bennett: Be Polite, featuring contributions by Helen Hughes and Ian McLean, was co-published with Sternberg Press in early 2016. After showing at the IMA, the exhibition traveled to Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2016, the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver in 2017, and McMaster Museum of Art in 2018. The opening at CAG coincided with the Canada 150 celebrations. The show had great critical impact at a moment of reflection on Canada’s colonial past as it relates to parallel histories in Australia.
Bennett has been the subject of major solo presentations and retrospectives at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, (touring, Europe), 1999–2000, Griffith University, Brisbane, (touring, Australia), 2004–2005, and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, (touring, Australia), 2007–2009. International recognition and attention for Bennett’s work has been growing with his inclusion in the acclaimed dOCUMENTA (13), in Kassel in 2012, and in the 8th Berlin Biennale in 2014.