Gordon Bennett was born in Monto, Queensland in 1955. After working in various trades in his early life, Bennett enrolled as a mature–age student at Queensland College of Art in 1986 and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Fine Arts) degree in 1988. Since his first major solo exhibition in 1989 his work has been at the forefront of contemporary Australian art and has been recognised internationally for its innovative and critical engagement with ideas and issues of ongoing relevance to contemporary culture.
While Bennett’s art is grounded in his personal struggle for identity as an Australian of Aboriginal and Anglo–Celtic descent, it presents and examines a broad range of philosophical questions related to the construction of identity, perception and knowledge. This includes a focus on the role and power of language, including visual representations, in shaping identity, culture and history.
Much of Bennett’s work has been concerned with an interrogation of Australia’s colonial past and postcolonial present, including issues associated with the dominant role that white, western culture has played in constructing the social and cultural landscape of the nation. However, Bennett’s ongoing investigation into questions of identity, perception and knowledge, has involved a range of subjects drawn from both history and contemporary culture, and both national and international contexts. The Notes to Basquiat: 911 series and the Camouflage series, which reflect on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the war in Iraq respectively, highlight Bennett’s global perspective.
Bennett’s art practice is interdisciplinary and encompasses painting, photography, printmaking, video, performance and installation. The critical and aesthetic strategies of postmodernism have had significant impact on the development of his art practice. His work is layered and complex and often incorporates images, styles or references drawn from sources such as social history text books, western art history and Indigenous art. Well-known Australian and international artists whose works are referenced in different ways in Bennett’s work include Hans Heysen, Margaret Preston, Imants Tillers, Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, Colin McCahon and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Bennett’s referencing, appropriation and recontextualisation of familiar images and art styles challenges conventional ways of viewing and thinking and opens up new possibilities for understanding the subjects Bennett explores.
In 1999 Bennett adopted an alter ego and began making and exhibiting Pop Art inspired images under the name of John Citizen, a persona representative of the Australian ‘Mr Average’. Bennett adopted this alter ego to liberate himself from the preconceptions that were often associated with his Aboriginal heritage and his identity and reputation as the artist Gordon Bennett. Since 2003 Bennett has been working on a series of non-representational abstract paintings that mark another significant shift in his practice. These paintings reflect Bennett’s belief that after the Notes to Basquiat series of 2003, I had gone as far I could with the postcolonial project I was working through1. The emphasis on making ‘art about art’ which is the focus of his non-representational abstract paintings, contrasts clearly with the focus on social critique that was integral to Bennett’s earlier work, and is intended also to make people aware that I am an artist first and not a professional ‘Aborigine’.2 In this respect, Bennett’s non representational abstract works, despite their overt emphasis on visual concerns, may be seen as reflecting an ongoing engagement with questions of identity, knowledge and perception.
Rejecting and questioning racial categorisations and stereotypes, and as an act of personal liberation from preconceptions about his Indigenous heritage, Bennett created an ongoing, pop-art inspired alter ego, John Citizen, whom he says is ‘an abstraction of the Australian Mr Average, the Australian Everyman’.
appropriated: Postmodern method of taking an image from a past artwork, so that we recognise the original artwork and the meaning it had when created but also see how the new artist has used it to add meaning relevant to contemporary issues.
pastiche: appropriating images from more than one historical period or culture in the same artwork.
Source: Essential Art (Victorian Essential Learning Standards), Glenis Israel p. 189.
Gordon Bennett is a Postmodern artist in his use of appropriation (borrowing from different traditions and artworks) and in the way he challenges the truth in history, particularly the history of indigenous Australians, Bennett's main concern, coming from a mixed background, is racism and identity. His works comment on how he has felt as a 'cultural outsider, of both Aboriginal and Anglo-Celtic descent, and as an artist in an art world dominated by white European and American artists.
Gordon Bennett also explores the effect of language systems on identity, that is, how meanings and values become attached to works. The letters A, B, C and D appear often in his work. They refer not only to the English alphabet but also to offensive slang terms heard particularly in the 1950s and 1960s ('abo', 'boong', 'coon' and 'darkie'). His work highlights the tensions in black-white relationships. He uses devices, such as perspective lines, and imagery from Western art to indicate how a European vision of indigenous Australian culture has evolved.
Bennett's work has several layers of meaning, to be interpreted by the viewer according to their own experiences, values and art knowlege. His works have strong socio-political messages, but they also work for their aesthetics. His work is powerful, exciting, compelling and challenging.
Source: Essential Art (Victorian Essential Learning Standards), Glenis Israel p. 190