Back in the winter of 2013, my guest curator, Yvette Endrijautzki, informed me that she wanted to squeeze yet another artist into our "Chamber of Wonders" show, which was now mounting into a massive group show consisting of over 56 pieces by 40+ artists. I started to protest - this show was starting to become a cataloging nightmare - but she insisted this artist had something special to bring to the table. She then showed me the painting entitled Papaver Somniferum, and I readily agreed with her.
I think what immediately struck me with Benjamin's work was the pure chroma from his primary colors, which was very reminiscent of early tempera paintings I had seen in Florence and Vienna. Tempera is a paint with a binder of egg whites: it dries very fast and leaves behind very deep coloring rarely seen by other binders. Used by early European painters prior to the discovery of oil mediums, the colors were very intense and vibrant.
|The Annunciation, a 15th C tempera painting by Fra Angelico of Florence|
Benjamin works in tempera, oil, inks and polymer pigment, creating pieces of art that immediately transport you back in time, although his content isn't always archaic. He uses a form of the momento mori (or still life) in nearly all his pieces, freezing his subjects in a place within time, giving the viewer a moment to observe, with relative leisure, every finite detail he has chosen to render. His lighting is stark and artificial, enhancing that sense of timelessness.
Since I first saw his work last year, I have since followed up on this remarkable painter and have happily represented his work. Since he is not local to Seattle, I only saw it fit to ask him to answer Ten Questions so our visitors and collectors can learn a little bit more about Benjamin. Here's what he had to say!
1. Please give a little information on your background: what school did you attend, your inspirations for the direction you've gone, if and where you've taught.
My schooling has come primarily from individuals, books, museums, apprenticeship scenarios, and otherwise unique circumstances. I was always enamored of the Old Masters, and had the good fortune to grow up in an environment where I could immerse myself in tomes featuring Rembrandt, Goya, and Dürer. Living in proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area also facilitated contact with cultural and artistic experiences that illuminated my understanding of aesthetics in general.
As a youth I studied for a few years with a painter in rural northern California who taught me the rudimentary fundamentals of oil painting. She was essentially a fauvist who crafted enormous, colorful canvases of an expressionistic nature, but she had a solid understanding of classical techniques, and imparted these principles to me. Her philosophy, which I agree with to this day, was that a painter should know how to render form, color, and light with some accuracy, regardless of the stylistic direction ultimately taken.
The value of studying the great paintings in the world's museums should not be underestimated, and a large part of my understanding of composition and rendering has come from simply viewing and contemplating the great works. Visiting regional art museums is always a priority when I travel, and decades of wandering has enabled me to see some exceptional masterpieces in person. The modern era is unique in that so many unique treasures from all times are available for us to study and reflect on. Even small local museums often house gems to inspire and enchant. There is an anonymous victorian Madonna hanging in the foyer of the cultural center where I have my studio for instance, and her consolatory gaze still captivates me every time I pass through.
I don't have a lot of experience teaching, although I have lectured at the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, and co-facilitate a life drawing group in the northern California town where I live. While I have spent a lot of time studying & painting, my own methods of creation are ultimately somewhat erratic and intuitive, making literal transcription a challenge. My strengths as a guide through the creative labyrinth lie more in conceptual theories surrounding aesthetics in general, and in exploring the repetition of archetypal motifs throughout the history of Art.
2. Explain your method of painting, especially with tempera. Did you develop this method on your own, or learn it?
I studied the traditional 'Misch' technique with Professor Rubinov Jacobson in the Austrian Alps. Jacobson is the foremost pupil of the renown Fantastical Realist, Ernst Fuchs, and he teaches the mixed media technique of working with egg tempera and oil on panel, in the manner employed by painters of the early renaissance. The method involves extensive use of subtle oil glazes over a monochrome tempera underpainting, and typically requires some months to bring to completion. When utilized correctly, the process evokes unrivaled effects of light and shadow, emboldens colors, and enriches the illusory nuances of dimensional space.
I've experimented with the particulars of the technique, but more or less employ it as it was taught to me. It's a chemically delicate procedure, as the water based egg tempera must be carefully layered with the oil based glazes in order to prevent cracking and melting. The fundamental principles can be applied to other media of course, and my process tends to involve a gradual building of forms through layering effects, even when employing polymer pigments or inks. I do a lot of work with ink and gouache on toned paper, and this style also reflects the aesthetic of the renaissance and early baroque periods which so fascinate me.
3. Your imagery hearkens to a period of late Medieval/early Renaissance symbolic work, especially of the Italian, Dutch and Flemish style. What is the draw to this type of symbolism in your compositions?
It's interesting to reflect on the Proteus that kindles the flames of devotion, compelling one to embark on a specific path. I could certainly cite numerous occasions when I was deeply moved by a particular work, or found myself confronted with an aesthetic experience that reinforced these inclinations. Traveling in Europe, spending time immersed in archaic books and staring for hours at the works of the great masters in cavernous museums has undoubtedly validated my field of interest, but it's often the quietly intimate notes that speak with the most resonance.
I remember that as a boy, my father has a large framed lithograph of Pieter Bruegel's painting, The Hunters in the Snow, hanging in his San Francisco flat. Whenever I visited him there, I would sleep under that image and watch the scene darken as twilight settled over the city outside, and then witness it come to life again when the dawn expanded into day. I marveled at the vision of these struggling, umber hued figures, plodding grimly through layers of ice towards the village in the valley below, all framed by the dark clutching limbs of naked oaks. The remote figures bustling in activity appear as myriad as insects, imparting a perspective of remote detachment which is then confronted with the looming imposition of distant mountain peaks, regal and unyielding. One is both humbled and calmed by the spectacle.
Years later as a young adult, I was confronted with the original painting on my first visit to the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. I didn't realize that the work was there, and the discovery had a shocking effect. It was not unlike the disorienting experience of waking from a dream to find one's self within that very dream, the reality ultimately being richer, more complex, and more sensually overbearing than one could imagine. I spent some hours in that chamber with this work and all the other Bruegel paintings. They are all remarkable images of course, but years of accumulated memories converged in that one epic vision of the Hunters in the Snow.
To extract greater significance from this anecdotal reflection: It has always been my ambition to create something in which others might also find their own dreams reflected. The early northern renaissance has merely been a snow covered field in which my dreams have struggled, aspired, frolicked and bloomed.
4. You've done some work in illustration, mostly book and album covers. Do you still do illustration jobs?
Illustration work constitutes the bulk of my creative labor, with applications ranging from album artwork for bands, book covers and illustrative plates, screened posters, and even some film applications. I always render everything by hand in traditional media, though the application may often times be exclusively for print. I never really thought of myself as strictly an 'Illustrator' in a literal sense, as my springboard has always been the tradition of painting. I nevertheless approach commercial commissions and collaborations with the same devotion that I apply to my personally inspired works.
Interestingly, the lines between fine art and illustration have become blurred in the recent decades, as they were in the 19th century, when image-craft was exalted by cultural institutions, and engravings and prints were given status with salon exhibitions. Most of my favorite artists from history all embraced printmaking, took commissions, and otherwise encouraged the popularization of their images to substantiate and fund their careers. In this sense, 'Art' becomes more of an aesthetic outpouring, taking a myriad of forms, and illustrations are certainly one of these guises.
To my observation, current cultural values have been shifting back towards an appreciation of handcraft and artisan labors, which bodes well for artists who bridge form and function with their endeavors. It's important to produce work that everyone and anyone can appreciate, so while I value the meditative intimacy of gallery viewing, I also strive to create work that people can live with, and perhaps even be inspired by. Prints, book illustrations, and album covers obviously facilitate a more direct point of contact for the average person who is not a collector, or who maybe never steps inside a gallery space. A significant aesthetic experience can still come through humble methods.
5. Do you feel there is an element of art training that new artists and illustrators are missing or should concentrate on these days?
This is a complex query and I believe that it's important to have some objectivity regarding the field of illustration in general, and what it means to be a crafter of imagery in the 21st century. Digital media is clearly without rival in the field of popular illustration, and anyone seeking to be competitive in this arena would benefit from substantiating their computer skills. Despite this acknowledgment, I don't create any digital imagery myself, so my perspective may be somewhat skewed. My own aesthetic values tend toward the archaic, and I exalt in the quiet simplicity of a blank piece of paper and a stick of graphite. I'm not a Luddite however, and I do frequently use the computer to assist with some types of composition layout, with transferring sketches to larger format panels, and with preparing image files for print.
The internet is obviously invaluable for promotion and also for research, particularly when referencing obscure niches of art history. We are extremely privileged to have access to virtually all images from all times, though with the increased accessibility comes the added challenge of reinterpreting ancient material to a novel and relevant contemporary effect. In some ways the illustration field is more competitive than ever before. There are so many talented and devoted artists working right now. Establishing a strong artistic identity is paramount, as is the understanding the lengthy tradition of illustration throughout history, and how it has evolved and shifted over time.
6. Do you have a particular dream project you are working on or would like to work on?
Yes indeed, all my efforts in the studio are currently being applied to a monumental illustration project for Daniel Schulke, which concerns the spiritual and magical properties of plants; a time-honored Herbal of the highest order, uniquely composed for the 21st century. The images themselves are very much informed by an extensive tradition of botanical illustration, an endeavor that has necessitated a tremendous amount of research on my part. It has been imperative that I not only familiarize myself with the physical attributes of the individual plant species, but also with the various visual interpretations that have come before. The goal is to elaborate on this rich tradition of illustration in a unique and original manner, whilst giving particular attention to the intangible presence of each individual plant. Woven throughout are decorative elements and narrative compositions that provide a window into the many diverse legends and myths that pervade the plant kingdom.
I previously collaborated with Schulke on his seminal work, Veneficium, a book which explores the historical connections between poison and witchcraft, and was released by Three Hands Press, a publisher renown for beautifully lavish productions of esoteric tomes. The scope of this current botanically themed project has been all consuming since I began work on it in 2011. Schulke's text, informed by his experience as a practicing herbalist, both for clinical and occult applications, contains 25 years of original research into some of the most obscure aspects of herbs, particularly their magical natures as it intercepts human magical experience. The book will be about 700 pages in total, will feature hundreds of individual illustrations all hand rendered by me, and is scheduled for a 2016 release.
As for a total dream project: I would eagerly embrace the opportunity to do an official, state-sponsored painted portrait of any one of the currently most influential world leaders, provided that I was able to compile all the reference material myself and to depict the sitter as I deemed appropriate. A lavish fantasy perhaps, but one must at least imagine the possibilities….
7. Does literature inspire your work?
Literature doesn't necessarily inform my compositions, unless it is indirectly through a mythological subtext. I strive to evoke timeless themes and iconographic subjects, often looking to the classical pantheon to substantiate my concepts. In keeping with the aesthetic traditions that inspire my work, such as the German Romantic painters and Fin de siècle Symbolists, the narratives behind my work tend to synthesize deeply personal experience with an archetypal mythos.
8. Which contemporary artist currently inspires you and why?
I am primarily inspired by the work of my peers; those creative individuals who vigilantly tend to the creative flames, and who offer their unique visions to the world. Longtime friends and colleagues, Madeline von Foerster and David D'Andrea are particularly motivating, and I have been privileged to watch their creative careers develop & blossom over the past few decades. We all came out of the same underground cultural context in the early 1990's, and share similar aesthetic values, inspired by the natural world, art history, and the craft of obsessive rendering. I have been privileged to meet, and exhibit with a lot of other remarkable artists over the years, a complete list of whom is too lengthy to convey here, but Yvette Endrijautzki, Steven Kenny, Rose Freymuth Frazier, and Denis Forkas all come to mind - Artists who are doing unique and exceptional work.
As a painter I'm naturally enamored of Odd Nerdum, who has really established a revival of archaic techniques and timeless compositions. Nerdum's oft extremist stance on contemporary Art, and his adherence to what he terms 'Kitsch Painting', has provided an entire generation with a strong precedent to substantiate the pursuit of a more traditional mode of painting.
I'm also moved by the work of some close friends who are not commercial artists, but who nevertheless exalt in the nuances of color, form and light, and who express the depths of the human experience with the passionate use of pigment and line. Alison Kirishian is a fantastic but obscure portrait painter, native to my northern California hamlet, who captures the quintessence of the subject with impressively accurate empathy. I always marvel at her seemingly effortless and spontaneously conjured interpretation of the individual. It's important for me to always be open to learning from one's peers and colleagues. The value of drawing from life, and from being open to the inspiration kindled through one's personal experiences cannot be underestimated.
9. What do you do in your downtime?
My preferred activity when not in the studio is hiking in nature, the mountains specifically, and ideally with a companion who revels in the glory of alpine meadows and granite spires. I am blessed to have the majesty of the Sierra Nevada right here in my own backyard, with ample opportunity for seasonal treks. I'm otherwise fairly modest in my endeavors, and take pleasure in simplicity, and in the nourishing aspects of mundane ritual. I do also enjoy travel for its own sake, and to share in engaging conversation with friends and colleagues. I also have a deep appreciation for live classical music, the opera in particular, though circumstances limit these endeavors at present.
|Riddle of the Sphinx|
10. In closing, if you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would it be and what would you do there?
I've been previously fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel to Europe on several occasions, both to study and to exhibit, but there remains so much that I have yet to see. Paintings really need to be viewed in person to be fully appreciated, and I would naturally welcome the opportunity to once again immerse myself in the splendor of Europe's many museums. I deeply appreciate my previous sojourns in Germany, but I've never been to Rome, Paris, or St Petersburg, and so many of the greatest painting collections remain unseen. I would enjoy a prolonged field trip to the old continent, with the sole aim of studying art, and conceptualizing future works. A sponsored residency abroad would be much appreciated, once I complete the current roster of projects… Onwards!