'Artists can fill in the spaces between the structure of everyday life.'
Ben Howe currently works from his studio in Melbourne, however his art practice has taken him all around the world. He has exhibited widely, nationally and internationally. His process is astounding, producing potent statements through his realist, hyperdetailed and surreal works. Although Ben regards painting as his main focus, he will firstly create a tangible reference in the form of collage, video sequences, intricate dioramas or sculptures to inform the outcomes. Incredibly, the sculptures, which are remarkable and finely resolved pieces in their own right, are in most instances destroyed, in a continual process of loss and regeneration.
Where is your current studio? What would be your dream studio?
I’ve had many studios, both here and overseas, small, huge, busy and quiet. For now, I work from home as the cost of a decent studio in Melbourne is hard to justify for the small paintings I’m making at the moment. My dream studio would be full of seriously creative people, with a large, private area that I can shut them all out of!
The scale of my work tends to shrink or expand to fit the space I’m in, so something enormous, with a small comfy area contained within would be perfect.
Do you prefer to work in silence or does certain music inspire you?
I love podcasts: science, intelligent discussions and of course crime. It’s great to have someone talking to you when you spend so much time alone.
I also listen to a lot of music, and genre-hop quite a bit. It’s usually, but not always down tempo. Experimental, electronic, Jaz, Americana, Drone / sludge. But show me anything that’s ‘good’ (I have a strict criterion) and I’ll probably put it on!
Sometimes teaching can help maintain a bit of humanity, but it’s pretty hard to drag me away otherwise. I also have hobbies like music and production, but they are also pretty isolating. I usually make sure I travel at least once a year as well, as that’s been a constant passion throughout my life. That definitely helps.
Describe a moment you had an epiphany concerning your creative life. I’ve had a few over the years, but one day, after completing a masters degree, I was looking back over some work I’d done years ago and realized that it actually had a lot to say. Reapplying new knowledge to something that existed intuitively and being able to extend it in a self-critical way made a lot of difference.
What is your favourite/ least favourite part of the creative process? I love experimenting and failing – challenging the medium, setting up a range of parameters and exploring them. I also love when things come together!
I dislike becoming ‘trapped’ in a genre, and having to make commercial decisions that can dilute the purity of an idea.
Do you have a personal mantra or quote which serves to motivate you?
It’s the device, the ghost, the wind that causes the leaves to blow about that is the real mystery. What drives our curiosity is what lies behind the door, rather than the door itself.
How has your style evolved and what contributed to the changes? It evolves all the time, but I circle back to old concepts and methods continuously. I like to explore certain ideas until they’ve done what I need them to do. I’m always interested in exploring memory and the nature of being, whether it’s within fractured narratives, the city or a crowd of people. ‘Style’ wise, there was a point about 6 years ago where I started to use more ‘stringy’ brushwork, where there was a loose kind of energy across the surface which tightened into a more photographic representation upon stepping back. I like the idea of experiencing change within a static artwork.
Describe an obstacle you have faced and how did you overcome it. The problem of ‘embodying’ time within a single image, rather than just representing it was something I explored for a long time. After much trial and failure I ended up painting sequential layers of moving crowds on top of each other, overlapping them until the forms dissolved and an abstracted energy pattern was left behind. The physical paint traces could just be made out through each layer.
Nature versus nurture- do you believe you have inherited abilities from creative parents, do you have creative siblings? Can you identify environmental factors or influences which led to your choices or directions?
I believe that I was a very ordinary child, who developed artistic abilities through a combination of introversion and difficult circumstances. It’s possible that certain genetic traits make it easier for some people to express themselves visually, but for me it was mainly interest, positive reinforcement and a lot of practice. I’ve always used art to try and work through things that have happened to me in a way that’s relevant to other people.
Is there something you regard as essential to your preparation or process? The process behind creating many of my works is laborious and complicated, with the generation of references often requiring as much effort as the works themselves.
Materially, I often make sculptures to base my paintings on, which are then destroyed and reformed to create the next work.
I believe in the value of long hours of labour, in not taking short cuts – of the power and agency of the ‘authentic’.
Apart from that, research. Its important to know where my work will fit within the circle of ideas, address what’s come before, and attempt to add something new. Even if the aim of an artwork is to be spontaneous, I believe it will only be of value if I can answer - ‘why?’
How does your work respond to social trends?
I often respond to social issues, either overtly or allegorically, but tend to avoid trends.. With the democratisation of the art world that has come about from the over abundant proliferation of images made possible with the internet, everyone can claim to be an artist, and there is just not the local market to support even a fraction of us.
It’s led to artists fighting for space, and bending their practices to attract the most immediate attention with the broadest possible appeal. I’ve seen this within galleries, art prizes and above all, social media. Artists are even starting to stretch their canvases to fit the shape of the instagram window.
What do you hope to convey through your work?
Nothing is stranger than reality. My paintings often take aspects of ‘the real’ and present them in an alternative way. I tend to rearrange the chronology of elements so that they say something axiomatic or make more sense (from a certain point of view). Always anchored in the real world, I want them to be combinations of documentation and poetry.