Friday, December 28, 2007

Art Space Talk: Ben Edwards

Ben Edwards is a painter who attended school at the University of California, San Francisco Art Institute, and Rhode Island School of Design. He is known for meshing traditional aspects of painting with the technology of our times. For example, by utilizing digital images of suburban strip mall sprawl, which Ben then paints meticulously, he is able to re-arrange the all-too-familiar architecture into a completely different world.

Ben has participated in many group shows and has had several solo exhibitions at the Van Doren Gallery in New York. He is currently preparing for The Sorrows of Democracy, a solo exhibit that will take place at Tomio Koyama Gallery in Tokyo, Japan. He has lectured at several major institutions of higher learning-- Yale University, Rhode Island School of Design, Columbia University School of Architecture --and has been featured in Artforum and Art in America.

Softstream Meadows, 2006, oil on canvas, 44" x 60"

Brian Sherwin: Ben, you earned an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design. Who were your instructors at RISD? How did your studies at RISD influence the work that you create today?

Ben Edwards: I worked mostly with Michael Young, Holly Hughes, Dennis Congdon and Duane Slick. Michael in particular was an exceptional teacher, and I think any graduate students who worked with him should consider themselves very fortunate.

I’ve often wondered what I would be doing today had I gone to another graduate program. I believe that not only is my work stronger, but I am a more aware and critical thinker because of my experience at RISD. In terms of the impact on my entire outlook about art and my experiences of daily life and the world we live in, there was probably more change and development for me in those first few months at RISD than at any other time in my life. In a nutshell, the philosophy was to question everything, take nothing for granted, understand one’s own perception and methods, and to learn to effortlessly combine thinking and making. It was a revolution.

Ether Study(United We Stand), 2007, inkjet on paper, 22.5" x 30"

BS: Ben, when I view some of your work, Immersion for example, I'm reminded of grids or some form of matrix-- as if there is a trace of digital influence within the context of your art. Is that so? How has technology influenced you?

BE: When I was at RISD (1995-97) the technology we take for granted today was still in its early stages. I don’t mean the personal computer, but all of the things that we can now do with them. Yahoo was a young start-up and I’m not sure Google even existed yet. Digital photography was just becoming affordable. Computer generated animation was just getting off the ground. I think Toy Story came out around this time. I could sense the beginnings of a huge change, not only with how technology would affect our lives, but aesthetically. Looking at what was on TV at the time, or at regular print ads, I could see the impact of the computer on how things were being made. It was about this time when I started thinking about how virtual products (like Toy Story) were becoming more real, while the real world of the consumer was becoming more and more simulated, or virtual. So I knew that I had to move into this direction to able to incorporate this subject into my work. In 1998 I first started using digital photographs and Photoshop to plan my paintings, instead of projecting directly onto the canvas from slides. This was a first step in making my paintings more virtual, but I felt that I had to move into 3D modeling to really take on the virtual.

In 2001, after my first solo show in New York, I began to think about how my work could not just be about a virtual world, but could be a virtual world itself. Just as I was synthesizing a huge number of photographic sources to make my paintings, I wanted to merge all worlds into my own meta-world, so that the virtual reality of video games would mix with the physical world of buildings. I began to use 3D modeling at this time and I loved the "holodeck"-like feel of the empty, default space of the program. It’s this perfect Cartesian grid where anything can be loaded into the scene and placed wherever you want. This just added to the idea that I could have multiple realities co-existing.

Since almost all of my paintings now grow out of this virtual world, the traces of technology that generated it are apparent. I believe this is an aesthetic expression of the world we live in. Metaphorically, we are all forced to snap into this perfect, Cartesian grid. Since we are always in it, we don’t necessarily see it, but anyone who is paying attention can sense its presence.

BS: Ben, you have a solo exhibit-- The Sorrows of Democracy --lined up for 2008. Can you tell our readers about this exhibit? What are your motives behind the exhibit?

BE: I’ve had to put this body of work aside, and I’m expecting these paintings to be finished in 2009. I am loosely basing these works on Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire. I see them as also a loose interpretation of the Bush years. My title was inspired by a Chalmers Johnson book called The Sorrows of Empire.

The New Way Forward, 2007, oil on canvas, 30" x 45"

BS: I just looked at an image of The New Way Forward-- which is a piece from The Sorrows of Democracy. This piece has a dark mood about it when compared to some of your other recent work. Can you tell us more about this painting and how the world of today has pointed your vision in this direction?

BE: The New Way Forward is a study for Together Forward, the last painting in the cycle. Its composition is based on Turner’s The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, which was an inspiration for Cole. My titles come from the names of the military operations in Iraq. When I first came across them, they struck me as yet another Orwellian play by the current administration. I don’t mean for these paintings to be necessarily about Iraq, but more about our general mood right now. I feel anxiety and sadness about the state of the world.

BS: Ben, do you 'see' the image in your head when you start a piece? Is there any preliminary work involved before you start-- sketches, research? Tell us about the work behind the work.

BE: There is a lot of work behind the work, sometimes I feel too much. Lately my paintings start out with an art historical reference and then I build my own composition on top of that. I begin by making very simple sketches of a general image in my head, then I’ll block out the scene in 3D, with simple forms for the architecture, basic lighting and an approximate camera. This turns into a map of where to put architecture into the scene. I conceive of the final painting being a synthesis of multiple channels of information. Simply put, I use the computer to generate lots of possibilities, more than could ever be used in one painting, then the process of making the painting is one of choosing fragments and accumulating them until arrive at what I want.
Omnigen Orchards, 2005 inkjet on paper, 12" x 16 1/2"

BS: What are some of the mistakes you have made with your work? Do you mind telling us about those early creative trials? Have you always been able to express your thoughts with the medium that you have chosen? Did you ever have doubts about your work?

BE: I really don’t believe in the idea of mistakes when it comes to making art. It’s easy to look back and Monday-morning quarterback, but at the time, you think hard about what you’re doing and you do what you feel has to be done. If you know you’re giving your work 100%, then you can’t blame yourself if something doesn’t work out. So I can think of several experiences that I could classify as mistakes, but I prefer to think of it as a necessary part of learning.

One of the problems with my work is that it’s really a cyborg creature, part painting and part digital. Many times these are in conflict, and in my own head I am conflicted. I have always used some kind of technology as an aid to make paintings, from regular photographs to the slide projector, then all the way up the line from Photoshop to 3D modeling. I’d say up until the last few years I’ve always had an Enlightenment attitude about it, which coincided with my philosophy about technology and life, that is, that technology leads to progress. Now I question that more. Just as technology threatens the stability of life on earth, and our humanity, as a painter I feel threatened by the technological machinery I’ve created for myself. It seems kind of melodramatic to put in those terms, but I guess this is part of the reason why I consider myself a painter. This may be generational.
Those of my generation are really on the edge of being techno-savants or Luddites. We can go either way. I can pick up new programs pretty easily, but I always have the sense that computer technology is an intrusion rather than being completely natural. First I was a painter, then along came the computer to help me. Now it feels like it’s taking over, as in life. But I don’t want to be in front of a screen. I’d rather make a painting.

BS: Ben, your work has been featured in several publications-- Artforum, Art in America, The New York Times... how does your success drive your artistic exploration? Does exposure make you feel 'under the gun', or does it energize you?

BE: It is strange to see a reproduction of a painting that only a few days earlier I was finishing up in the studio. I sometimes look at the last shape I painted and think about how close it was to not being there. Once a work is finished and it leaves the studio, it has crossed a line of finality for me and I begin to let it go. Seeing it in reproduction has the effect of a thick lacquer that shields the work from all the uncertainties involved with every decision in its making. Sometimes I’ll become conscious of this in the studio, but I’ve learned to quickly ignore it. Occasionally a painting in progress will be like a child throwing a temper-tantrum, and I imagine the day when it’s all grown up and out of the house and I can be proud of it. That’s when the reviews (at least the positive ones) are nice.

The Triumph of Democracy, 2007-8 (in progress)

BS: What other plans do you have for 2008? Do you have any other exhibits lined up besides the one we've discussed?

BE: I am currently working on a painting called The Triumph of Democracy. It’s a commission for a new building in Washington D.C., and it will be completed in April. In May, I will have a show of paintings at the Tomio Koyama Gallery in Tokyo. Then I will return to The Sorrows of Democracy.

BS: In your own words, what do you hope people gain from viewing your art? What is the most crucial message you wish to send to the masses through your work?

BE: Making art is a narcissistic activity because the artist is saying that his or her creation, a piece of the artist really, is important enough for you the viewer to consider. I don’t think artists approach it in this way, with the idea that they are communicating to someone. The process starts out very quietly, and it’s very personal, but it ends up being very public. I don’t think too much about that public part of it. I try to make the work that I feel has to be made, regardless of who sees it. It certainly helps to know that a public will most likely see what I make. Before I started showing my paintings would end up in a closet in my little studio, and that was pretty discouraging. But it’s the faith that the work is expressing something true about how I view the world at a particular moment in my life that drives things forward. It’s the search for truth, if even one’s own truth, which can often be elusive, that gives the work necessity. For every painting, the message is always "This is how I saw things, this is how I felt at the time when I made this." My hope is that my viewers felt it too and think to themselves, "YES!"

BS: Can you tell us more about the philosophy behind your work?

BE: Making art is like being on a never-ending search for something. I think most people who are regularly engaged in some kind of creative activity would agree that it’s a positive-reinforcing activity, where the more you’re doing it, the more you can build on it, and so on. When I’m in one of these active times, images will appear in my head and I don’t know where they’ve come from. I love it when one of these comes floating to the surface. When you have this experience, you realize that there is a whole world in your subconscious. To me, this is truth. It’s like the famous Descartes dictum "I think therefore I am." You never think these things deep under the surface are false or wrong. There’s an underlying faith that there is greater truth under the surface than there is above it.

As my career moves along and I have more and more work under my belt, and I have a broad range of work that I make, the whole thing feels like a train that keeps adding cars. But the engine is that interface between the conscious and the subconscious. As ideas and philosophies develop and evolve, adapting to the reality of the world, the subconscious transforms and the conscious artist has to catch up. The subconscious, I suppose, is the track following the terrain of the land, and if that changes course then the whole train does too.

So anything I say about my work is about the cars of the train, not the engine and certainly not the track. For this reason it’s good to occasionally talk about the ideas behind the work so I can remind myself of where I’ve been, but it’s very difficult to talk about things that are current. Sometimes if I feel the need to express something that I can’t do visually, then I’ll write something, and I feel like this is part of my work.

Cinnamon Gardens, 2006, oil on canvas, 44" x 60"

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?

BE: I think with the things that I’ve written and with past interviews I’ve covered a lot of ground. With my current work I can’t say much more. But I will take this opportunity to acknowledge the hard work my assistants contribute. As the role of technology in my work has increased I rely more and more on some very talented (and younger) people to help me build this virtual world of mine. They help me to spend more time painting, and for that I’m grateful.

You can learn more about Ben Edwards by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

No comments: