Acrylic on panel
Acrylic on panel
Acrylic on panel
Chris Shaw: A quick visit to your website reveals quite a bit has been written about your work. How do these texts come about and how involved are you in the process?
Ben Cove: The texts that accompany solo shows are commissioned but are sometimes written by the curators of the show. The interviews or Q&A’s come from being approached. For my last two solo shows George Vasey has written the essays. I first worked with George about six years ago when he put me in a show he curated. Since then he has gone on to establish himself as a really good writer as well as curator and being as he’d known my work for a while and seen it develop, I thought he’d be able to bring a lot more to it.
In most cases these texts are preceded by studio visits in front of the work or phone conversations and thoughts and images in emails. Sometimes I’m asked what I’d like the text to focus on, but usually I don’t want to dictate this. I’d rather see what the writer picks up on, what they think are the most significant aspects of the work. I don’t think it’s the job of the writer to relay an artist’s intentions, you can do that yourself - it’s much more valuable to hear an interpretation.
Having texts written about the work by someone else is a real luxury. Previously I’d written about the work myself and this was then often rehashed into a press release but I’ve never been comfortable with this. Philip Guston once said in an interview that it’s not the job of an artist to speak about the work. There are times and places for this, but for me the pressure of trying to write (speaking is usually easier) during the making process can sometimes be very difficult. It’s often much easier after the event. Writing about my own work in a general way is one of the hardest things to do, answering specific questions less so.
Are you surprised by what some people write about your work?
Yes, sometimes I’m surprised by what’s written, but I’ve never felt anyone’s been massively off the mark. Often the most surprising things are the comparisons to other practitioners whom you either weren’t aware of or have never consciously seen a connection with.
Regarding your Three Works show... the paintings appear luminous on the black walls. There is a sort of preternatural perfection about them - but on closer inspection the processes which brought them into being have not been totally eradicated. Mistakes are painted out but traces remain. Are these traces something you mind talking about?
Of course not, they’re very evident in the flesh and I make no attempt to remove them. My process involves little pre-planning and a lot of changes. I have the option of sanding down or scraping back to remove these traces but I feel that would be dishonest to the process. These paintings only seem possible through this process of constant change. Attempting to pre-plan them doesn’t work so I think it’s important to leave an honest indication of this.
Your time-lapse videos are mesmerising but I'm often surprised by what you paint out. To me, some of these earlier, hidden, painted-out stages seem just as effective as the finished work. Is it that you are suspicious of quickly arrived at solutions?
No, not in the slightest. I don’t see a direct correlation between time spent actually making and the quality of the work at all. Time spent thinking, looking, discussing and reading are also part of making the work so I have no qualms about work that’s quick to execute. In fact the paintings I made for my MA show (when I came back to painting after a break of about 3-4 years) were one-day pieces. This way of working meant that the editing process resulted in throwing out a large proportion of the work that didn’t meet the grade. After working this way for a while I decided that the works would benefit from re-working to try and reach something different. The quicker work has a spontaneity that I really like and my way of working now can mean that I get to a point where I’ve kind of killed it through overworking. I often paint over a lot of a piece towards the end of the process to resurrect it, though getting to this point - accepting that you have to lose a lot you like - is often difficult to accept.
I often look back at pictures of earlier versions and see some bits that are really good but overall the work isn’t right. I continue to work on something until I have what I want (although I don’t think I can really articulate what this is). These changes can be formal decisions, but often it’s to do with the character or tone of the work - things can look good but they need to be doing something. Arriving at this point - knowing when/what to add and subtract is the hardest part of the process.
Your work obviously takes ages to make which must be difficult to square with the amount of curators sniffing around. How are you finding things at the moment?
Difficult, but good difficult.
Do you listen to music in the studio while you work?
Often but not always - but what I listen to when painting is quite specific. If I’m doing things that require less concentration then I don’t have constraints, but I do when painting. It has to be largely instrumental and not too emotionally intense. Usually it has to be familiar so I’m not too distracted and it has to have the right kind of tone for the work.
What are you reading at the moment?
In recent years I don’t seem to be able to read one thing at a time from cover to cover (I blame the internet and its effect on my attention span!) so on the bedside table currently there’s - Jazz by Toni Morrison, London the Biography by Peter Ackroyd, If On A Winter's Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino, 33 Artists in 3 Acts by Sarah Thornton.
In a recent Q&A you did with Yvette Greslé you spoke about good taste and kitsch and that, ideally, you'd like your work to fall somewhere between the two. You said you often put things in your work that you're not very keen on. Can you give any examples of what you mean?
The desire to pursue those things that sit outside my comfort zone comes from an interest in how authority is acquired and lost in cultural output and the shifts in what is considered tasteful and acceptable. These things vary dramatically and constantly change. In order to stop myself from falling into a safe way of working I feel the need to address the things that I’m unsure about, it’s a kind of thinking through making. I could go on but this isn’t answering your question.
In recent works there are a number of things - the fluorescent colour is something I’m unsettled about but I felt I was slipping into an easy palette and needed something dramatic to jolt me out of it. Another recent example is the kind of faux-marble that has so many associations. Neither of these are things I detest, I have mixed feelings about them, but they bring with them a host of differing associations. The work needs to jar to an extent to stop it becoming too comfortable.
You speak a lot about the influence of modernist architecture on your work in your Q&A with Yvette Greslé, and your paintings with their shadow effects are not unlike architectural drawings ready to be pitched to a committee of town planners. Often, in the plans that architects draw up, the human figure is used to give an extra sense of reality to spaces not yet in existence. Your paintings don't go as far as to include figures, but you have said that your work relates to the body in some ways. How so?
I have looked a lot at architectural drawing since it was taught on my architecture degree. Digital imaging was only just starting to be adopted by students at the time so drawing and physical model-making were key. One of its primary attractions for me now is that it is essentially a language which speaks of endeavour.
Formally, architectural drawings combine a flat diagrammatic language with the pictorial and mimetic. My Fine Art MA thesis examined the changing role of the figure in architectural drawing in the twentieth century. Essentially, it went from having a largely functional presence as a simple indicator of scale, to something much more propagandist often used to infer either the inclusive or exclusive intent of a design. My painting language certainly takes much from architectural drawing, though as you imply, these are not mock-ups of buildings.
One of my key interests in architecture lies in one of its essential functions: as a container for the body, albeit a non-specific body (with occasional exceptions). This is also the case with my interest in furniture and product design - those things that take the body as a starting point. The body is present in these things but not visible.
Much of my work hints at the anthropomorphic - both figures and faces. This came about in part due to an interest in pareidoloia - when the mind has a tendency to perceive a familiar pattern (particularly a face) when one isn’t present. In the work there is an acceptance that an audience (myself included) will attempt to read something representational into abstract forms that are unfamiliar and therefore exploit this by way of suggestion.
In addition to this, it seems impossible to me to ignore the presence of the body when making work and when decisions are made as to how it will be displayed. The body determines a lot in the studio - from limitations to strengths. Fundamentally, I’m physically making things and even apparently two-dimensional things such as paintings require consideration as physical objects during production. When it comes to thinking about display, how someone will physically deal with and respond to the work is in the forefront of my mind, particularly when I’m given a particular space to work with.
You had me paint the walls black for your Three Works show. Why black?
Being offered this was great. I always see my work on white walls, apart from when I hang on top of large photographs as I’ve done more frequently in recent years. I had initially thought of a dark grey but one of the pieces has a dark grey background so I thought it may merge into the background. Being as the work is pretty loud in terms of palette, a bright colour seemed out of the question really (or I was too much of a wimp!). I thought black would intensify the colour of the work and minimise shadows on the wall so that the pieces would seem almost suspended. I think it worked well.