Australian artist Jason Benjamin dead at 50

The body of the celebrated painter, best known for his Archibald Packing Room prize portrait of Bill Hunter, was found in western NSW this week

Australian painter Jason Benjamin has died at the age of 50.

The landscape artist and Archibald prize multi-finalist, who took out the Packing Room prize for his portrait of actor Bill Hunter in 2005, went missing from Carrathool in NSW’s western Riverina region over the weekend.

Police retrieved Benjamin’s body from the Murrumbidgee River on Tuesday.

Murrumbidgee police say a report will be prepared for the coroner as inquiries into the Broken Hill-based artist’s death continue.

Benjamin’s Sydney dealer, Ralph Hobbs, said he had only spoken to the artist last week about his forthcoming exhibition.

“He said was heading out bush to make some paintings and some poems that would be [part of] the exhibition,” Hobbs said.

“You know, he was up and down, but he seemed really up and really excited about this body of work that he was doing. He was in great spirits.”

Hobbs described Benjamin’s distinctive large-scale landscape works as romantic and highly allegorical.

Jason Benjamin’s ‘I let it all go’ - oil on linen 2019-20
Jason Benjamin’s I Let It All Go (2019-20), oil on linen. Photograph: Nanda\Hobbs

Although Melbourne-born, he spent periods of his childhood in the US and Mexico and studied at the Pratt Institute in New York City.

When he returned to Australia in the early 1990s, he began collecting awards for his work, winning the Mosman Art prize in 1993, 1994 and 1996 and the Kings School Art prize for landscape painting in 1997.

But it was his Archibald portraits that gained him national attention, first with the Bill Hunter entry, titled Staring Down At The Past, in 2005, and subsequent portraits of the Drones frontman Gareth Liddiard (2011), fellow artist McLean Edwards (2013), You Am I musician Tim Rogers (2014) and musician Paul Kelly (2015).

Bill Hunter stands before Jason Benjamin’s Packing Room Prize-winning portrait of him in 2005.
Bill Hunter stands before Jason Benjamin’s Packing Room prize-winning portrait in 2005. Photograph: Ian Waldie/Getty Images

He has had more than 40 solo shows in Australia, Tokyo, London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Rome.

Quarterly art journal Artist Profile described Benjamin as “a master of the mixed message”.

“[Jeffrey] Smart encouraged viewers to put themselves in the picture, Benjamin leaves us on the outside looking in.”

Hobbs said Benjamin had his demons, “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.”

• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14.


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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