Liam Benson, Bleeding Glitter, 2005
Collection: Art Gallery of South Australia. Gift of Daniel Mudie Cunningham

Toxic masculinity describes the process whereby expressions of masculine gender characteristics based on power and patriarchy are normalised. Grounded in a binary conception of gender, toxic masculinity is asserted through misogyny, homophobia and violence. Maleness is therefore constructed through toughness, virility and supremacy and to express emotion or vulnerability would undermine this toxic idea of what constitutes a ‘real’ cis-gendered heterosexual man.

Liam Benson’s work has been grappling with the complexities of toxic masculinity since he emerged as an artist in the mid 2000s. Though he works across multiple forms of media, his photographic self-portraiture has harnessed the seductive codes of advertising, film and media to open up a conversation about Australian attitudes to gender, sexuality, race and cultural identity. To grow up white and male in Australia is to have all the power and privilege. Benson uses his work to acknowledge his white male identity, but also the decentring that queerness brings. For Benson, being queer is about rethinking, questioning, and being open to new possibilities of what life could look like if we are open to change. As a form of self-portraiture, his suburban gay Anglo male identity is always part of the picture. In this way, Benson is keenly aware of how this is an identity composed of both privilege and marginalisation. Taking this queer approach, he acknowledges a cancerous legacy of toxic masculinity that informs Australian mythologies of nationhood, without giving it power.

Liam Benson, A Christian Country, 2011
Courtesy of the artist and Artereal Gallery, Sydney

Benson’s performance of masculinity asks us as an audience to consider where toughness and vulnerability coalesce. The amplified emotional range he performs for the camera upsets the stoicism typically expected of men. Masculinity becomes a form of drag in Benson’s hand, with the tropes of nationalism its toxic armour. In one of his best-known portraits, Benson is a long-haired Jesus apparition whose outstretched arms reveal a glittery Australian flag painted across his naked torso, while his head is haloed by a plastic headpiece spelling out the work’s title: A Christian Country.

Benson considers this one of his most direct comments on toxic masculinity as it manifests through the dogma of religion. Christianity has been used in this country as a patriarchal form of regulation to quash otherness by establishing a hierarchical value system from spiritual beliefs. What is blatantly ignored when conservative political and faith figures refer to Australia in this way is that Christianity was introduced through colonisation as a project to whitewash the country and eradicate Indigenous spirituality and knowledge systems. Its dominance continued to be enforced as waves of migration inevitably brought other non-Christian belief systems to Australia over time. Using the national flag as warpaint and propaganda, Benson highlights the absence of the Aboriginal flag in this conversation. In doing so, he takes aim at the bigoted tribalism historically paraded in race riots and protests, notably at Cronulla Beach in December 2005. Benson’s outstretched arms as Jesus evoke a gesture of pastoral care and an invitation to faith, while also signifying a colonial mindset that thrives from taking up space at the annihilation of others. The flag emblazoned on his body may as well be a smoking gun, a statement made more explicit by the tiara of bullets Benson-as-Christ wears in an earlier portrait, Untitled (Jesus) (2008). 

Liam Benson, Untitled (Jesus), 2008
Courtesy of the artist and Artereal Gallery, Sydney

A Christian Country derives from The Pioneers Collection – a selection of photographic and video works made from 2010 to 2011, where the jingoistic tropes of nationalism are adorned like drag. Notable to this body of work is how he subverts the strictly gendered codes of Australian white settler mythologies and frontier folklore. Referencing Australian bush iconography of the 1980s, the decade that birthed him (he was born in Sydney in 1980), an undeniable sense of nostalgia for the popular culture of the time is evoked, especially in the follow-up series Motherland (2012) – where the focus shifts from toxic masculinity to matriarchal themes. In these works, Benson cherrypicks the tropes of rural Australian life as it was depicted in children’s television shows like Secret Valley (1980) or films like The Man from Snowy River (1982). In queering these references through gender play and drag, Benson asserts a clear affection for the material referenced so that its robust political critique can open up a welcoming and inclusive conversation.

Since 2013 Benson has developed a respected textile and embroidery practice, with works often made through participatory community collaborations and workshops. By involving others in the creation of these works, his take on self-portraiture has expanded to include the hand of the collective. Early on, Benson had only worked with textiles in the homemade fabrication of his performance costumes and drag accessories. By incorporating a traditionally feminised craft-based practice as central to his work, the conversation around nationalism is further queered. This queering is formed from the sequined vernacular of camp, while also acknowledging how nostalgia and kitsch are the bedrock for a consumerist tourism industry that packages up national pride through mass-produced souvenirs of ‘Australiana’.

Noble Savage (2015) demonstrates where his self-portraiture and textile practices intersect politically. This series overtly explores the link between toxic masculinity to colonialism and whiteness within nationalistic frameworks. The artist appears in diaphanous handmade embroidered veils or Klansmen hoods that make potent reference to a set of murderous archetypes he dubs The Executioner, The Crusader and The Terrorist. Equally seductive and terrifying in its clash of signifiers and codes (one being the suggestion of bridal signifiers at a time before marriage equality in Australia), Benson’s images show how whiteness as an unmarked category of power has gained its self-proclaimed sovereignty and privilege through the classification, subjugation, and erasure of the racialised ‘other’.

Rounding out the Noble Savage series with a suite of ‘Ned Kelly’ portraits, Benson appears with a fulsome bushranger beard, the same kind we see popularised today by urban hipsters. With a searing gaze, Benson’s face is painted in military camouflage patterning drawn from the hues of barks from different eucalypt tree species: blue gum, red gum, snow gum and ghost gum. Using face paint, Benson conceals his whiteness through a range of cosmetic skin tones. In doing so, he exposes his identity while attempting to camouflage it.

Liam Benson, The Executioner, 2015
Courtesy of the artist and Artereal Gallery, Sydney

This ambivalent push-pull performance of concealment and visibility recurs in Above and Below. Performed on Dharug Country in the lower Blue Mountains – the same location where he played dead in the water as Ophelia almost 15 years earlier in 2006 – Benson appears as Captain Cook, his head floating ominously ‘above and below’ the surface of the calm reflective water. Created in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic and against a backdrop of the events precipitating the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Above and Below could be read as a response to a toppling of colonial monuments which erupted in its wake. While the activism motivating the vandalism of colonial history is a justifiable form of revenge, arguably the urge to burn it all to the ground or throw it in the nearest river is an extension of cancel culture, a toxic response to a toxic history. Truth-telling must run both ways. There’s no point erasing traumatic histories as if they never happened. Burying a past that is too painful to live with does not necessarily make better futures. Looking beneath the mirrored surface of our fraught history and equally tense present, Benson wears Cook like a provocative costume reflecting white privilege back onto itself. He asks us to consider these monuments to colonial history with empathy and a means of considering how it shapes our identity in the present. Though reconciliation requires collective effort and energy to work, we need to first reconcile internally. This can only be achieved if we face uncomfortable truths about our white history and our forced complicity in this toxic narrative spun from lies.

A nod to his Scottish ancestry, ‘virtue without stain’ is the Clan Russell motto dating back several centuries. Adopting it as the title of this exhibition, the phrase is updated in the present through political irony and personal endearment. Knowing settler Australian history is awash in bloodshed and trauma, there is no hiding from its stains, and it can be difficult to see where virtue lies. Once we regard virtue as a Christian myth invented to uphold moral wellness through unattainable self-regulation and patriarchal control, we can start to let go of the expectation that life will be blemish free. And that’s why Liam Benson turns the camera to himself to reflect how these toxic attitudes manifest through masculinity as a consequence of nationalism. In the process he is acknowledging his own mistakes, asking the questions first and foremost of himself. Answers don’t come easily. But when they do, it will be because they have rippled out across time and space as a shared responsibility.

Liam Benson, Above and Below, 2020
Courtesy of the artist and Artereal Gallery, Sydney

Catalogue essay for Liam Benson: Virtue Without Stain at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, 4 November 2022 – 15 January 2023.

Published by Bathurst Regional Art Gallery in 2022.