Interview and Studio Visit / January, 2012
Conversation with Jonathan Beer, Trudy Benson and Lily Koto Olive
Jonathan Beer: Your work seems to hang in the balance between abstraction and illusion – it’s full of emblematic fragments, painterly mark, different textures, all coming forming a definite kind of space – How did your work get to this point?
Trudy Benson: The first actual body of work I made was based on the idea of an interior space or a room but the perspective was as if you were floating in the middle of the room and looking in – one point perspective. In that work I was thinking about the brushstroke as a personified mark, where the brushstroke would be existing within this 3-dimensional space. I came to that thinking about the Lichtenstein piece (‘Brushstroke,’ 1965) where he was poking fun at the Abstract Expressionists by doing that really graphic brushstroke with the Ben-Day dots. That work in particular I was thinking of the brushstroke in a figurative way, still. The work now has a different kind of a space, but it’s also still really shallow and unrealistic. Kind of from that same perspective, as if you were floating in the middle.
JB: It’s interesting, we’re of a generation that lives in space like that – digital space is just as shallow – not in terms of the information it presents but the fact that these things are just floated right on top of one another. It’s a weird thing to reconcile as a painter today. I think about that a lot also.
TB: I think that’s why a lot of my figurative paintings in the past were always really, really flat. Flattened and graphic. I think a lot of people in our generation are working with that; not so much the painting’s surface but…
JB: …treating the surface as a screen.
TB: [laughs] In a way I can paint that idea and even though I know that’s a part of painting I think there is a kind of rebellion in this work where I push outward, that’s why I use so much thick paint. It calls a lot of attention to the surface.
Lily Olive: Reclaiming painting.
TB: I think there are a lot of people using really thick paint right now…its not as cool anymore, not like it used to be.
JB: Like with Frank Auerbach.
LO: Your work has such bold, strong compositional elements. Has that always come naturally to you?
TB:The figurative work I made, towards the end, I made this giant six-foot head on a canvas. I really like Pop Art and like I said before I like thinking about how recognizable shapes can have be different kinds of references for us. That’s why there are a lot of graphic shapes in the compositions.
LO: What kind of materials are you using? It seems like there’s a lot of experimentation going on.
TB: There’s flash paint, oil paint, One Shot lettering enamel…really toxic but it makes really great drips. There’s spray paint and airbrush with oil paint.
JB: Can you talk about your process? You said with your last show it was more intuitive. Are you working with studies or drawings? What’s the path for a painting for you?
TB: The very first step is figuring out the basic painting idea, which is, what do I want the painting to do? For example, that painting is going to be a whole series of masks and you know when you draw something and you really hate it and you scribble over top of it and so that painting started out with a really exaggerated cross-out mark. First, is a really basic painting idea and after that it moves pretty intuitively. There’s a lot of staring and thinking about what should go next. Throughout the life of the painting I want each step to be the most unpredictable thing I can do.
LO: Does that mean you’re fighting your instincts?
TB: Sometimes. Not always unpredictable, but I always want to shift the space and the perspective. With this painting the raw canvas was a hole before I put on the gradient – and now the gradient flattens it out.
JB: Does shifting the space involve rotating the canvas and then re-approaching it in a way you didn’t imagine it?
TB: I don’t turn them around. I hate when the drips go the wrong way. But I do think about a painting upside down while I’m making it. This is a more interesting way to trick yourself into looking at it in a different way.
JB: You mentioned that you’re thinking about what you want your paintings to do, and the last show you had at Mike Weiss Gallery was Actual/ Virtual – can you talk about what you were trying to accomplish? Talking with you and looking at your paintings, they seem to be decisive in how you want them to function and they are very much objects with a presence. Can you talk about that?
TB: I started the body of work for Actual/Virtual by making a body of work that started with these dark grids, which came from thinking about virtual space – that shallow space – and separating space further. In that way, that body of work was about having a separate background and foreground. I was really trying to push the painted space out into our space. With the new work I’m trying to push into our space, but I don’t want it to separate as much.
JB: You want to decrease that distance. So they hover?
TB: Kind of hovering – like panes of glass floating in space in front of each other.
JB: Like the way a Rothko hovers right off the canvas.
TB: Maybe more clumsy than that. None of these paintings are finished so I still don’t know what kind of space I’m thinking about. I think I’m trying to meld those two worlds – the really graphic, planetary paintings that were basically giant circles and paintings that were more about the mark and having it exist on its own.
LO: Where do you find inspiration for your work?
TB: I think a lot about graffiti, I don’t know anything about graffiti but I see it all over. I think about handwriting – I really like Cy Twombly. And scribbles, and the slant, the way things just come out naturally. The planet paintings are inspired a lot by images from the Hubble Telescope – and how unreal and fantastic they are. You’ll see an image of a cloud with 8,000 stars all shining at the same second. Those images are really cosmetic; they’re really artist’s renderings in a way.
JB:I think they’re enhanced – since most of it is stuff you can’t see. Like the gas clouds – the telescope sees them because it can see other kinds of light. And the images are always enhanced to look a little more unbelievable.
TB: I’m fascinated by the idea that if I actually saw Saturn would it really look likes what those images show us? It’s really juvenile…but it makes my imagination go.
JB: I see a lot of different artists in your work – Albert Oehlen comes to mind right away, and there is a collage element too of cubism and dada collage. What influences you?
TB: I really like Albert Oehlen, and in the early 80’s he made these computer drawings, made with a really old drawing program. Seeing those paintings and thinking about them made me think about the way I first started making paintings – as a kid on an old computer – with the program that had a spray can, the brush, the pencil, the fill bucket, and the gradient. I now use a lot of different tools and I like to use different paints together. Aesthetically I really enjoy looking at those works by him. I was trying to make it look like I was drawing with a mouse with that pencil tool…it’s not as good as I wanted it to be…but maybe that’s fine. Jonathan Lasker’s [work] I really like too. His work is really graphic and simple but it references real life in an abstract way
LO: What are you plans moving forward? Are you forging ahead and seeing where your paintings take you?
TB:I have another solo show at the space, but I’m not sure when that will be. I’m really enjoying having this space and not feeling stressed out by a show and working at my own pace. I’m trying to work slower than I had in the past year. As I was making the paintings right before the last show I was in a state of frenzy. With finishing paintings so fast I missed being able to sit down and bring it to a natural state, rather than pushing it. Which can also have a good effect, but I want to try and think about each piece separately.
Trudy Benson is currently represented by Mike Weiss Gallery in New York.