What happened to Jason?
Saturday, 17th July, 2021
By Cherie von Hrchner
Police are still investigating the mysterious death of renowned artist Jason Benjamin, whose body was found in the Murrumbidgee River in February after he had set off on a road trip from Broken Hill.
The 49-year-old had been living in Broken Hill since November 2020 and was planning to buy a property in Crystal Street.
But a spontaneous road trip with a stranger turned out to be the artist’s final journey, his body found by police in the Murrumbidgee near Carrathool in the Riverina region of NSW, three days after Jason left town promising friends he’d soon return.
Detective Justin Milne of the Murrumbidgee Police District says investigators are still grappling with what happened in the final moments of Jason’s life.
“It’s still under investigation,” he says. “The coroner’s investigation is still being run as well, so there are two investigations running concurrently.”
Jason’s body was found about two kilometres from his campsite, suggesting he had drowned before floating downriver to his final resting place. But an autopsy found no bruising or abrasions that would be expected after a journey down a river strewn with sharp rocks and overhanging branches.
A strong swimmer, Jason was unlikely to have been overwhelmed by the slow-moving Murrumbidgee, and a post-mortem toxicology report found no traces of drugs and very little alcohol in his system.
Detective Milne says police have yet to rule out suicide, but friends of Jason believe such a scenario to be unlikely.
“None of us believe that,” says Ian Barry, who had been friends with the artist for more than 35 years. “He was too forward-looking in the end.
“He’d just bought a new car, he was planning on buying an old pub in Broken Hill, and he was excited about his next body of work.
“He’d been through some very hard times in the last few years, but his whole demeanour changed in Broken Hill. He was happy there.”
Born in Melbourne in 1971, Jason Benjamin rose to prominence at the turn of the century, with Australian Art Collector naming him one of the 50 most collectible artists in Australia in 2000. He won the Archibald Packing Room Prize for his brooding picture of actor Bill Hunter in 2005, and actor Kevin Spacey bought one of his paintings on sight in 2001.
But Benjamin became most famous for his Australian landscapes, painted in a dreamlike style he called “narcotic realism”. Art scholar and former director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the late Edmund Capon AM OBE, once referred to Benjamin’s work as “beautiful, engaging, but nonetheless just slightly disturbing”.
The last time Jason was seen alive by friends was at a cafe in Argent Street before he set off on the last road trip of his life. When asked whether going on a trip with a stranger was wise, he responded: “I’m taking a leap of faith.”
A report is being prepared for the coroner.