Portrait of Ben Reeves
Artist Ben Reeves creates paintings that sit on the edge of representation, exploring both image-making and the moment when a picture “falls apart”. His evocative works revel in their materiality, not only to make evident the constructed nature of the image, but also pushing the paint itself to its physical limits, resulting in works that can hover between painting and bas-relief sculpture. His paintings that include landscapes, urban scenes, and pictures of smokers, reveal the complex relationship between perception and one’s representation of what one see. I have been following Reeves’ work for more than a decade now and when I asked him to discuss his practice, he very kindly obliged.
Interview by Emmy Lee Wall
Portrait + Studio Photo by Jennifer Latour
Copy Edited by Tina Shabani
Emmy Wall: Let’s start from the beginning. You studied at the University of British Columbia and received your MFA from the Chelsea College of Art and Design, London, in 1995. What kind of work were you making at the time?
Ben Reeves:That seems like ages ago now. At the time I was making work that utilized existing and historical modes of picture making. Everything ranging from signage to copper engravings. I was analyzing how different pictorial modes operated to affirm and entrench ideology.
An example is a series of etchings I did based on my childhood trips up the Northwest coast of BC to Alaska and down to the Cook Islands and New Zealand. I realized that my family’s trips coincided with many of the places James Cook “discovered”, so I remade images from our photo album in the style of John Webber’s engravings. (Webber the official artist of Cook’s third “voyage of discovery” — primarily known for images of the NW coast and of Polynesia.) In this I was thinking about how the colonial mindset is still pervasive in contemporary experience.
Ben Reeves, All Nighter, 2016, oil and acrylic on canvas with canvas collage, 72 x 56 inches
Can you tell us a bit about your working methodology now? Do you have a pre-conceived notion or even a sketch of what you intend to create?
In the past I operated in a more conceptual mode where I had an idea and then I executed it. Now things are much murkier and I don’t have any set way of doing things. But I always have an image/feeling/idea (typically these are bound together for me and can’t be parsed) in mind that I want to explore in a given work. This will lead me to a sketch, a photograph, a collage of found photographs, or I might begin straight on the canvas without any of these armatures. It is important that things evolve through the making. The painting is a crucible where the sensory, emotional, rational, psychological, symbolic, historical, body, material (and more!) are thrust together to affirm and challenge one another.
It’s interesting that you mention working more in a conceptual mode previously but more intuitively now. Practicing in a city like Vancouver which is often dominated by conceptual dialogues do you find it can feel a bit “unfashionable” to create guided by sensory or emotional modes?
I’m not sure if artists should strive to be in fashion, it may be healthier to do the opposite. But for me intuitive, sensory or emotional modes are not exclusive of the conceptual. And I want to be clear that, although my work may not fit within the art historical frame of Conceptual Art, it is still an intellectual pursuit. Intuitive, emotional and sensory modes are often misunderstood. They are complex processes that also incorporate the cerebral.
Ben Reeves, Laurel, 2011, oil on burlap over panel, 25 x 29 inches
I agree that these aren’t mutually exclusive and for me work is often more successful when it manages to marry the different modes you have described. A signature motif in many of your paintings are exaggerated globs of paint that add a three-dimensional quality to the work. This distinctive mark-making seems to celebrate the materiality of the paint while also calling attention to the constructed nature of the image. Can you tell us how this painterly innovation came about and what its significance is for you?
I am interested in the materiality of painting, but also its conceptual side. Paintings are physical things – they are of the world—but they are simultaneously spaces for thinking about the world. These aspects are in tension with one another: how we think about the world is never exactly how the world is. I am interested in this back-and- forth, painting seems a helpful space for me to explore and challenge my thinking about things. For this reason I have been interested in moments when painted, material gestures resolve into an image, and equally when an image “falls apart” into autonomous passages of paint, surface and colour.
This focus probably began with early drawings I did of paintings where I perversely and meticulously drew out every brushstroke—making a kind of absurd map of the painted surface. The images from the original paintings dissolved into a densely interwoven depiction of brushstrokes. In these drawings my attention shifted from the image to the literal painted surface. And, yes, I was thinking about the constructed nature of the image (in a broad sense). But that was just the beginning for me—this relationship between material and image invokes the relationship between the world and a subject’s perception of it. It is interminably complex. This part of painting has become an existential nexus that is endlessly fascinating to me.
Ben Reeves, Smoker 3 (Girl Smoker), 2007, oil on linen, 36 x 30 inches
Your interest in both the image and the moment when an image “falls apart” really resonates with me because while your work is clearly representational, I see your paintings as abstractions too. I was wondering about your subject matter which historically has ranged from treescapes to urban scenes in the rain to “portraits” of people smoking. The imagery in your subject matter often includes a repetitive motif (leaves, raindrops, puffs of smoke) that you have emphasized and/or enlarged in your paintings. Historically how have you chosen your subject matter? It seems to me your imagery has been carefully selected as vehicles through which to explore the materiality of your medium?
I always seem to have a flood of ideas and I can make only a fraction of the pictures that I would like to. When I actually have the time to finally focus on a given painting I have usually been sitting with it for a while—it has been in the back of my mind while I have been working on other things. This makes it difficult to say exactly how or why I finally choose to paint the pictures I do. There are typically a number of different reasons that begin to add up. They generally relate to my own experiences, memories and feelings, and open a very personal space for reflecting on my place in the world. At the same time I am also negotiating painting as the vehicle for this reflection. For me pictures are not separate from the world—how we picture the world is largely how the world is for us.
The materiality of painting plays an interesting role in all of this. Painting is physical stuff and idea all at once. Just like everything else is. But painting allows me to focus on this relationship—to hold it up and consider it more directly. So, yes, I am drawn to subject matter that provides opportunities to interrogate painting’s materiality. At the same time pushing paint around is a great way to explore my subject matter. It is two sides of the same coin.
Ben Reeves, Handshake Drugs, 2017, oil and acrylic on canvas, 57 x 72 inches
Your most recent body of work is a series depicting an ambiguous tent colony in the woods and related landscapes. The tents could be a group of people enjoying the outdoors, perhaps people at a festival, or even a homeless colony. Can you tell us a bit about your thinking in this new series?
I like the openness of these pictures. Their diverse (even contradictory) readings seem contemporary—reflecting a complicated relationship with “nature.”The pictures tap into the Romantic tradition, but also turn that on its head. People are no longer simply subservient to the awesome power of “nature,” but in the anthropocene era, humans are driving climate change. And, equipped with MEC tents, the outdoors has become a space of leisure.
Also, the tents are like bodies. And their different styles and colours (along with a varied range of painterly language) suggest diversity. These huddled groupings describe a provisional community or nascent social order. This may be utopian, but could also allude to tent cities and displaced peoples.
Ben Reeves, Night Camp II, 2017, oil, acrylic & canvas on burlap, 30 x 24 inches
It seems as though you typically paint in a “series” so you have several paintings that form a body of work, that relate to one another, and amplify one another when exhibited together. Would you say that while an individual work can be read alone, it might have additional resonance when viewed in the context of the series?
One of the best things about painting is that it forces me to really slow down and pay attention. Even if parts of the work go quickly, the whole process typically takes a long time. A lot of time is spent looking, thinking and feeling. A series allows for this to be extended even more, and for the same subjects to be considered in different ways. In exhibition, this is opened to the viewer. And my experiences of the process are also vicariously available. So the whole can be enriched.
Karl Ove Knaaugaard wrote about watching a plastic bag suspended a few feet below the surface of the sea, “This moment was not the beginning of anything, not even of an insight, nor was it the conclusion of anything, and maybe that is what I was thinking… that I was still in the middle of something and always would be.” Maybe it is also something a bit like that.
Ben Reeves, Night Swimming, 2016, oil on burlap with collaged pieces of acrylic on canvas, 30 x 24 inches
In these recent paintings there have been some additions to the works so that some of them have collaged elements. Your paintings have often had a very three-dimensional element so this seems like a natural extension of your practice— how did this innovation come about for you?
It first happened for pragmatic reasons. I was struggling with a composition and a quick, easy way to test possible solutions was to cut shapes out of coloured paper then stick them on, move them around and so on. It was a good way to understand how the composition was working before committing to it in paint. Right away I liked the speed, simplicity and boldness of it. And because I had been working with those motifs you mentioned (leaves, raindrops, etc. — where discrete blobs of paint physically asserted themselves) I was drawn to the collaged elements. They did a similar thing, but in a different way. It was natural to use canvas for most of the collaged pieces because it is always on hand in the studio. I also like how the canvas refers to painting’s substrate. Its materiality is autotelic, formally autonomous, even as it depicts something.
Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts with us Ben.
Ben Reeves’ next solo exhibition called “Between Dog And Wolf” opens at Equinox Gallery on Oct 20th-Nov 25th. Check out more info here.