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Jason BENJAMIN (b.1971; d.2021)

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Jason Benjamin was born in Melbourne in 1971. In a childhood littered with both emotional and geographical upheaval, Benjamin’s family moved from Melbourne to Sydney and then to the United States and Mexico. Benjamin returned to Sydney for High School. At 16, he received a scholarship to study a diploma at Long Island’s Stony Brook School and went on to study art at New York’s renowned Pratt Institute. * Whilst there, Benjamin came under the spell of Minimalist Art and artists such as Brice Marden, Agnes Martin and Carl Andre. He commented: “The humility, discipline and restraint I found in reducing things to an essential colour or motif resonated with my Zen Buddhist personal foundation.” **

Benjamin returned to Australia in the early 1990s after visa troubles in the US, with paintings in hand and ambition in his heart. He quickly began collecting awards for his work. *** Nonetheless, he worked as a chef to earn an income and only became a full-time painter in 1995.

Deciding to “head West” soon after his return to Australia, he “clocked thousands of hours/kilometres over the decade: Lightning Ridge to Broken Hill, The Hay Plain and Monaro.” Here he painted expansive landscapes. Having spent some time on his friend’s station called Burrabogie on the Hay Plain of western NSW, he later settled in Broken Hill. ** He married his wife, interior designer Annie, and the couple had three children, spending time between Australia (where they lived in Clovelly) and the US. In more recent years, the family had moved to Byron Bay but he continued to make trips to Western NSW for work.

Benjamin studied Chinese and Japanese traditional art and philosophy, which provided inspiration and interpretation especially through the concept of the Zen garden. He also complimented his artworks with poetry and heartfelt writings.

Benjamin tragically died in February 2021, his body found in the Murrumbidgee River. He “felt pressure greatly” and “found solace in addiction to help him through. But he was incredibly passionate about life and love … everything he did was an outpouring of emotion.” ***

Benjamin’s first exhibition was a group show in downtown Manhattan in 1989. From then, he exhibited extensively and had more than 50 solo shows throughout Australia, London, Tokyo, Dallas, Hong Kong, Singapore, Rome and New York. He was planning an upcoming exhibition at the time of his death. ***

Benjamin was a three-time winner of the Mosman Art Prize in Sydney in 1993, 1994 and 1996 and was the 1997 winner of the prestigious Kings School Art Prize for landscape painting. He was also a finalist in most of the established painting prizes including The Moran Portrait Prize, The Fleurieu and The Doug Moran National Portrait Prize. His 2005 Archibald Prize entry, Staring Down At The Past, his portrait of Bill Hunter, won the Packing Room Prize. He was a finalist for the Archibald Prize a further six times with his portraits of artist John Olsen (2004), the Drones front-man Gareth Liddiard (2011), fellow artist McLean Edwards (2013), You Am I musician Tim Rogers (2014), musician Paul Kelly (2015), and a self-portrait, So you want to come down and the silence of painting (self-portrait) (2018).*** A monograph on his work, What Binds Us, was published in 2007.

Visually stunning, Benjamin’s modern neoclassical works are highly evocative pieces. What began as echoes of his mind morphed into explorations by the artist. From majestic landscapes to floral compositions and ethereal nudes, Benjamin's paintings are imbued with a mysterious and haunting edge and display Benjamin’s sensitivity and understanding of the interplay of form and light.

Thought-provoking and emotionally, as well as visually, expansive, Benjamin’s romantic and highly allegorical landscape paintings moved from solely being expressions of his inner reflections to celebrate the essence and meaning of the land itself. His work is realist, maybe at a brief glimpse hyperrealist, but underneath this superficial impression are layers of profound subtlety.

Benjamin saw his “little (writ large) still life paintings” as a “contrast” to his larger landscape works: “The minutiae or Yin to the expansive Planes’ Yang.” ** These include his sumptuous and beautiful nude paintings.

The titles of Benjamin’s works invite an alternative viewpoint to the subject of the piece. Indeed, Benjamin has been described as “a master of the mixed message”. *** His, 2018 self-portrait, So you want to come down … , is typical of such a title. Fittingly, Benjamin himself commented that the portrait “refers to the realisation, after years, of the toll that fractured mental health takes not only on oneself but on those closest to you. The silence of painting can be its own worst enemy and is represented by the make-up, crudely applied somewhere between a mime artist and clown: screaming but not making a sound.” ****

Benjamin’s prolific career saw Australian Art Collector name the artist as one of the 50 most collectable artists in Australia, in the company of such noted artists as Blackman, Olsen, Whiteley, Boyd and Nolan. In 2003, Benjamin became the youngest Australian artist to have sold a single work for $50,000. His neo-classical paintings earned Benjamin an enviable reputation as a foremost artist and a universal popularity among both collectors and the public. His sudden death was much mourned in the arts community.

Benjamin’s works are held in Collections across Australia, including the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, the Parliament House Art Collection and many other state and regional galleries, corporate, university and significant private Collections throughout Australia as well as in the US, including the home of a very famous American actor.

* Prominent artist and regular Archibald finalist Jason Benjamin found dead at 50, Julia Andre, ABC News, 18 February 2021 updated 18 February 2021 ** Sailing to Byzantium on the Plains of NSW- Painter Jason Benjamin, Jason Benjamin Biography, Sydney 2017 *** Australian artist Jason Benjamin dead at 50, Kelly Burke, The Guardian, 18 February 2021 **** Jason Benjamin, So you want to come down … , Past works and winners, Archibald, The Art Gallery of NSW


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