Ben Reeves, Night View, 2018, oil and acrylic on burlap over panel with collaged canvas pieces, Collection of the Artist
There is less than one month left to visit our current exhibition Floating among Phantoms (May 5 – June 30, 2018). Learn about artist Ben Reeves’s painting practice and artistic influences in our #AGEArtistSeries interview. Read the full interview below, and then plan your visit to the AGE to see his vibrant paintings in person.
- Your painting practice draws attention to how paintings can be both images and objects, can you expand on this statement?
BR: If you are looking at a landscape painting, you are being asked to imagine something that is not there. This directs your attention away from where you are actually standing—into the space of ideas. This is how we tend to exist in the world. We inhabit an idea of how we think things are. But every so often we run into something or trip over something that forces us to reconsider our ideas. Paintings can do this. The physical object doesn’t always behave and it can resist our idea of how things are.
- Recently you’ve incorporated collage into your work, generally applying pieces of painted linen canvas to the surface of the painting. How has this technique impacted your exploration of the materiality of paint?
BR: Collaging started as a way for me to test a composition before painting it out and fully committing to it. I decided that I liked the boldness and directness of the collaged elements so I started to keep them. Typically they depict a recognizable form, say a tree branch. But because they are physically added onto the painted object, they have a formal autonomy that I like. They resist being easily resolved into a fixed understanding or picture.
I started to use canvas as a collage element because it relates to the substrate of the painting. This calls back to earlier works of mine where I would “pull painting apart” and consider different elements that make up a painting.
- How did moving from downtown Vancouver to the suburbs of Tsawwassen influence your practice?
BR: BR: Moving to Tsawwassen forced me to take stock of things. I grew up in Lynn Valley on the North Shore. Tsawwassen is on the other side of Vancouver and reflects the suburbs of my childhood. I found myself thinking across time and geography to the other side of the city—to my adolescence—those wonderful, difficult years suffused with naive idealism. In Tsawwassen I think I began to reflect on where I am in my adult life and how it does and doesn’t line up with those early dreams. This reflective attitude started to appear in the work.
And, as British, sci-fi writer J G Ballard said, “Actually, the suburbs are far more sinister places than most city dwellers imagine. Their very blandness forces the imagination into new areas. I mean, one’s got to get up in the morning thinking of a deviant act, merely to make certain of one’s freedom.” A bit of rebelliousness can be useful to an art practice.
- What does the title of your exhibition, Floating Among Phantoms, suggest to viewers about the exhibition?
BR: The world does not have a fixed, defined shape. Reality is malleable. We have lots of ideas about how things are, but these ideas never fit like a glove— they are just versions among many other versions.
The title comes from curator, Katherine Dennis’ careful reading of Italo Calvino’s novel, Mr. Palomar. The titular protagonist is on a mission to understand the world (and his place in it) through the power of empirical observation. Even though he is exceptionally talented in this regard, his enterprise is absurd. It is dryly comical and he is doomed to fail. This leads him (and the reader) to larger philosophical questions.
- You primarily work as a painter. If you were to work in any other medium, what would it be?
BR: I am interested in the image/object duality of painting. It has an amazing potential to open imaginary spaces, but it can also offer an immediate experience, a phenomenological encounter here and now with an object. This leads me to think in two directions. In drawing, with such economy—pencil on paper—anything is possible. It is infinite. This is an incredibly seductive space that entertains the unlimited power and potential of unbounded imagination, unbounded thought. On the other hand, sculpture trades in the directness of a physical encounter, the infinity of material, and material thinking. How things simultaneously yield and resist understanding. ‘ Both disciplines are suffused with culture and history as well. Perhaps I would choose to make sculptures and then draw on them.
6. As Associate Professor at Emily Car University of Art+ Design, what advice do you give to your students beginning a career in the art world?
BR: Art is not an easy path. But then again, there are few easy paths. One thing that can be incredibly difficult to do is to value one’s own ways of seeing and thinking. In my introductory painting classes we often start with colour exercises and it quickly becomes clear that everyone has their own colour sensibility. We are drawn to different colours and combine them in particular ways. And we all make marks differently. My painting professor at UBC, Robert Young, described this by saying everyone has “their own calligraphy.” These are small things, but if we value, recognize, develop and push our own sensibilities the results can be unique and dramatic.
At the same time it is crucial to be open and to challenge ourselves with different ideas and experiences. Art is a space for thinking about and being curious about the world. This is a tricky balance: nurturing our own voice while being open to voices of others. The ability to be honest with oneself is a useful talent.
- How would you define contemporary art?
BR: This is a difficult question. The field of painting is wide open. You can find serious painters pursuing every kind of approach imaginable. And you can find it online. This has changed the commodity aspect of painting—it exists virtually and is disseminated widely. Perhaps this marks a forking of the path where painters adapt their works to function effectively online or, conversely, make works that can only be truly experienced in person.
But, ultimately, to answer your question, I wouldn’t define contemporary art. I’ll leave that to others. I think it is important for artists to push beyond definitions.