Heather Benjamin has been a mainstay of the New York punk community for years. Her work can be found at most underground shows and is incredibly distinct. Powerful women dripping with inky blood, and hair like the snakes of Medusa, comb the page with their black stiletto nails. Heather’s salacious illustrations explore a world that is at once surreal, but grounded in the emotional reality of most women. Sex, lust, love, pain, and magic are only a few of the concepts she explores. Her drawings may come with poisonous snakes, spiders, roses and thorns, but pleasure usually begets pain. In any case, Heather’s dom’s can tread on me anytime.
Justine: Your style is very specific and easily recognizable. What has your exploration been like as an artist, and how did you grow into the style that you are now working within? What artists, if any, inspired the way you work?
Heather: I’ve always been really into line work. My first zines – the zine series I made called “Sad Sex”, it had ten issues that I put out over a period of a few years – were all comprised of black and white line drawings. I still mostly make line drawings, only recently did I kind of start experimenting with having some larger solid fields of color/black in my work. But even though I’ve always worked with line, I think the way that I’ve treated my line work has changed a lot since I started out. In the beginning, I made somewhat detailed work, but not to the extent that I ended up getting into later. I used to just work with non-archival tiny pens, like microns, on printer paper that I could take out of the machines at the copy shop for free. When I was starting off, most of what I drew was made with the intent of it being photocopied and that being the finished product, whether it was a photocopied print or a photocopied zine or whatever. So I didn’t place much importance on the originals whatsoever. I mean, I definitely also just used those materials due to being completely broke too, I never thought about actually spending money on art supplies. Then I graduated to working on Bristol board, which felt more high pressure because I actually had to pay for it instead of being able to take big handfuls of it out of photocopy machines.
After my first few zines, I think my style got a lot more dense and detailed for a long time, until, in my opinion anyway, it kind of folded in on itself, I just got to a point where I felt like there was too much going on. I still love making detailed work, and I don’t think I can ever get away from that, but I got to a point somewhat recently where I didn’t feel like I wanted my work to be quite as dense with detail as it had been.; I wanted there to be a bit more of a balance from zone to zone within a piece. There was a review of my work once where someone referred to the super dense nature of my line drawings as being the visual equivalent to Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” effect; not really knowing where to look first, feeling hit all at once by it, and then slowly starting being able to get in there and pick it apart. I found that really interesting for a while, but I guess it’s just not where I’m at now. I’m more interested in showing a little bit – and I do mean just a little bit – of restraint, not in the amount of detail I use on a given subject, but in not saturating the entire picture plane evenly in the same level of it. I’ve also sort of graduated a bit out of using only the cheapest and crappiest materials possible – I still do use bad pens and shitty markers and old copy paper from Salvation Army all the time, but now I’ll treat myself to fancy papers and nice inks, too. The biggest change for me in the last year or so has been making the move from using pens to using brushes. I’m not totally swearing off making pen drawings, I’ll always love that, but I’m really enamored with using a brush and ink, really excited by it, and with working much larger scale than I used to.
As far as artists who have inspired me, I think I mostly just enjoy looking at older work rather than things that are being made now, although I don’t actively seek out new current artists to look at – maybe mostly because I wouldn’t even know where to start. But I definitely have a couple of handfuls of people working right now whose art I enjoy and who I’m lucky enough to be friends with a lot of – Emma Kohlmann, Sonya Sombreuil, Alex Heir, Eugene Terry, and Sam Ryser are all people whose work I follow and feel really excited by… and am probably influenced by too. Starting out, and definitely still, I was always influenced by people like Pettibon, Darger, Klimt, all the 1970s underground comics greats, especially the ladies who were involved in making “Wimmens Comix” and its affiliated publications. I was really heavily influenced as a high schooler by weird art comics from the 90s and beyond – when I was 15 or so I discovered the publisher PictureBox after being floored by coming across Brian Chippendale’s “Ninja” and just started eating up pretty much everything they had put out, which lead me to find out about all the Providence artists involved in Fort Thunder, as well as Paper Rad, Gary Panter, King Terry – just looking through the catalog of what PictureBox had put out at that time, and following their subsequent releases, was hugely influential to me and definitely lead me to find out about so much stuff I might not have known about otherwise. I basically kept up a strong interest in weird comics, art comics, odd sequential artwork since then, and it has always been a big influence. Recently, I’ve been really into looking at Pre-Raphaelite paintings, 1950s romance comics, Frida Kahlo, and work by the British painter Danny Fox.
Zines are probably one of my most favorite things in the world. Can you remember the first time you came across them? Why do you think that zines are such a mainstay of underground culture?
I don’t remember the exact first moment I came across a zine, but I do know that the first zines I ever came across were punk and DIY meant to disseminate information basically on how to carry out different aspects of living alternative lifestyles. I saw them at info shops and record stores, and in the personal collections of friends I met by going to shows when I was younger, and sometimes being sold at band’s merch tables at those shows. There were zines on how to make herbal remedies for first aid, zines full of handwritten vegan recipes book ended by essays on animal rights, zines on how to set up your own silk-screening station, zines on how to brew your own beer or kombucha. Then there were also these s DIY/punk story and lifestyle zines that were less of instruction manuals and more of just little narratives, sometimes telling one long story or collecting a bunch of little ones. One of the first ones like that I remember seeing was some issue of Cometbus. That was exciting to me because I was interested in writing when I was younger, and this seemed like a cool way to be able to make your own books, with no parameters and very little overhead. I was excited to find out that they existed because the idea of disseminating information, stories, recipes, drawings, photographs, comics, whatever, in a really cheap and small and fun way was something I didn’t really know existed before that. I never thought about photocopiers as a tool I could use that way before I saw zines… then after that, I couldn’t stop thinking about them that way. I think zines have been so integral to punk culture for many reasons, but maybe mostly because it’s kind of been a way of keeping records.
Also, this goes without saying… I think, maybe for some people depending on age, but zines pre-date the internet. So even though I still think they are important in this time, they had this entire other function for a long time. Before the internet, when everything was less connected to everything else, and you couldn’t just literally Google anything, zines were one of the only ways to experience a lot of these aspects of underground culture, to learn about them and read about them. They changed lives! They are so important in so many ways… I could go on forever.
Despite this age of connectivity that we live in now, zines have managed to not only survive, but to take on a new level of importance, which to me is that they preserve some amount of analog integrity. The amount of physical work that goes into making a zine, and it’s status as this handmade object, is an important thing to recognize these days, and it’s sort of an anomaly. You could just post whatever it is you have to say or whatever it is you drew on Tumblr or on some forum somewhere online… or you could make a handmade book, and disseminate it through a distributor or a web store or even mail-order. And people still do, and I think that’s so great and so important, and I hope that never stops!
You have been involved in a lot of punk and underground community events. Is punk a piece of your personal philosophy or influence to your aesthetic?
Yes! I spent so much time when I was younger, during the formative years of my life, going to shows, making flyers, being a part of the punk community wherever I was living. Not that I don’t actively engage in those things now, it’s definitely a little less than say, ten years ago. I mean is that it was a big part of shaping who I am and how I think about things and the kind of people I want to be around, what’s important to me.
There are so many things I took away from growing up a punk and around punks and those ethics and ideals that ring true, maybe truer than ever in some cases, for me now. I definitely feel just as intensely as I did when I was younger about a lot of the things that I see as the emotional cornerstones of identifying strongly with punk and underground culture – the sense of feeling like an outsider having brought you to a point where you fervently give a shit about your community, feeling excited by DIY shows and events and methods and knowing they are incredibly important and wanting to work at creating them and keeping them alive, transforming anger and dissatisfaction into energy and productivity. As far as punk influencing my aesthetic, I don’t even know where to start with trying to dissect that, but the answer is most definitely yes.
I love that many of your pieces feature a very powerful female. Often she is angry, in pain or wounded, or in a position of dominance. Where did this character originate? Could you call her a self-portrait of a sort?
For sure, I do consider her a self-portrait most of the time. Sometimes I consider her a friend, spirit animal, or a manifestation of an ideal. Sometimes she’s expressing where I’m at in my life, other times she’s expressing where I wish I was – like if I’m feeling weak and emotional and I try to build up this fierce version of myself that I aspire to be in that moment, that maybe by creating work with her in it that might bring me a step closer to getting to where I want to be mentally and emotionally.
Overt sexuality is another aspect of your work that I really admire. Why is this a concept that you work with regularly? Do you consider yourself to be feminist or are gender equality issues something that you are passionate about?
I am definitely extremely passionate about gender issues and I do consider myself a feminist. The sexuality in my work is so like, fundamentally inseparable from the work itself in my opinion – it hardly even feels like a facet of it, it is what’s driving so much of it that it’s just integral. There are so many reasons I make work about different aspects of the concept of sexuality. Sometimes it has to do with trauma, pain, memories. Other times it has to do with confidence, self-expression, and desire. Then there are times it has to do with repulsion and self-consciousness and shame. It always has to do with the female experience, and obviously specifically with mine.
What current artists or movements inspire you most? What do you find yourself looking at or conceptually coming back to repeatedly?
I don’t keep up with a lot of current artwork, which I think is pretty much a weakness on my part, but I have been looking at a lot of pre-Raphaelite painting for the last couple of years, and don’t feel like I’ve lost my fascination with that yet. Aesthetically I find it hugely inspiring, and I think I also see a lot of what I’m trying to do with my own work in it. I’ve been reading a lot about the representations of women in artwork during that time, and the context in which women existed at that time, how they were perceived by men and subsequently depicted in artwork, which I’ve also found hugely stimulating and inspiring.
What do you think about the growing fascination in current culture with line work? Has this change in aestheticism helped your work, or have you always been drawn to using bold lines?
I started out being into black line drawing and have pretty much never gotten sick of it, even though lately I’ve been enjoying branching out a bit – I always come back to that. I’m not sure if it seems more prevalent now than ever, or if we’re just seeing more of it/more of everything because of the internet and the amount of artists posting work to different social media sites. I do see a lot of artwork consisting of black line drawings on the internet, but feel you don’t see it much in galleries, magazines, in “the art world”. It seems like those places are inhabited by artwork that does not usually include drawing and illustration – I could speculate on that forever and probably never come up with a real understanding of why that is.