Friday, June 04, 2010

Ben Ferry Opens Today

Ben Ferry opens today at Hillyer Art Space, (the show goes from June 4 – 26th). The opening reception is Friday June 4th 6-9pm. Below is a review of the show by Bruce McKaig:

Ben Ferry at Hillyer Art Space

By Bruce McKaig

What is a piece of art supposed to do? Change the fiber of existence? Look good in a living room? Bare the artist’s soul, thereby rousing ours? Provide something clever (or not) to post on Facebook? Depict, decry or distract from injustice? Give curators something to do?

Shadow Shark by Ben ferry

Shadow Shark. Oil on canvas by Ben Ferry

Ben Ferry’s art crystallizes personal, cultural, and sociopolitical realms in a frank and self-effacing way, resulting in a well-rounded body of work that neither exploits nor avoids personal history or cultural trends. This is not a “something for everyone” approach. The layered ingredients are well proportioned, well thought-out, an executed synthesis of himself and his historical and current context, an autobiography where he stays out of the way.

When I asked Ben to talk about his work, he took us past the room stacked with watercolors and paintings, onto a front porch, gestured to the surrounding houses and said, “This is where it started. Five years ago, as I looked at the light hitting these homes, the shadow of my house on the wooden slats of the neighbor’s, a dog that hangs out with me.”

As Ben unwrapped the watercolors for this exhibition, speaking about the pieces, about his process, it became clear that his art and his life are intricately related. He is not self-absorbed so the work is about his surroundings, built from how he observes and interacts with his surroundings. In Shadow Shark, the home is his (current) neighbor’s house, the shadow is of his own home, the stenciled bust is “one of, if not my most favorite movie characters of all time, Robert Shaw playing Quinn, from the movie ‘Jaws’. I grew up around watermen and waterfowlers. A lot of my childhood memories are of characters that resembled him. Names like Leonard Broadwater, Burt Hickman, John Poke.... names you couldn't make up. They just fit the face and the place perfectly.”

Most of Ben’s watercolors and oil paintings are similar blends of past and present, of personal and cultural. In some works, the cultural is pop (block buster movies), sometimes historical (fairy tales). In other works it acquires a political stance. In Pigeons and Bombers, the strutting birds are comically and frighteningly reminiscent of German marching soldiers, body language that is also seen in Comrades, this time a rooster and a pig. Politics is always on Ben’s mind, from living in the nation’s capitol for many years, and from his childhood where he learned early on that he would have to develop a voice or go unnoticed.

Ben Ferry Comrades

Comrades. Oil on canvas by Ben Ferry.

Developing that voice through his art has involved several academic experiences. His degree from George Washington University (MFA 2001) came with classical training and craft skills. He appreciates the talent his teachers shared (Brad Stevens, “Color does not come naturally.”), but was uncomfortable being deconstructed by others. “You lose your own voice when you follow convention.” As a teacher at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, he learned a lot from his students, what they liked, what young people think a piece of art is supposed to do.

The stenciled images on the watercolors and paintings clearly reference graffiti (he is a fan of Banksy). He thinks of it as process vs. product: Spending so much time finishing the classical part of the piece, then so much time prepping the stencil, then, in a few seconds, the stenciled info is layered on and the work is done. He let several months lapse before applying the first stencil over a “finished” painting. Though he hesitated, he finally attacked with stencil because, “You can’t change the idea just because it isn’t guaranteed to work.”

He found the transition from watercolor to oil paint intimidating, fatiguing. He would show the watercolors and people would ask, “When will you do the paintings?” He searches for both a compressed sense of space and some depth of field, testing himself to see if he can learn. He does not work en plein air; he works from photographs in his studio, which has an interesting historical link. Henry Fox Talbot (British, 1800-1877), one of the pioneers of photography, was himself a painter and he invented a photo process as a means to “get” his sketches in the field and have the photographs with him in the studio to paint. Talbot described photography as “the pencil of nature.”

Amidst the personal and cultural, there is also the whimsical and humorous. Swimmers at Malcom X, Rapunzel, MacMansion, are all clearly fabricated scenes, but the juxtapositions are visibly credible. In Ben’s words, “It fits but it is also funky.” This is reminiscent of another artist, Jerry Uelsmann (photographer, American, b.1934). Uelsmann’s fabricated images, initially in the darkroom now at the computer, are fantastical scenes, not so much real or unreal as they are stubbornly plausible.

McMansion by Ben Ferry

McMansion. Oil on canvas by Ben Ferry

This is Ben’s first solo exhibition. It is the result of years of work, starting with the mental willpower to accept change and start in a new direction. Because of back problems, he abandoned pursuit of professional sports and turned his attention to the world of art. His definition of success? “Always get better, play on a bigger stage.” As this exhibition goes up, he is already thinking of his next explorations: people, figures, made up environments, staged scenes, costumes. Will the new works retain the blend of personal and cultural?

Ben’s art does not definitively explain what a piece of art is supposed to do. For that matter, as an artist myself, and a Gemini as well, I don’t want an answer as much as I want the debate. Ben’s art, blending the individual with the communal, layering classic craft with abrupt juxtapositions, tacking the historical on to the contemporary, does provide one thought on the goal of art: Engage without preaching.

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