The works of the Australian painter Ben Smith are unique. The compositions build unique worlds that engage you through a recognizable incomprehension, drawing you into their world in the hope of understanding them. They intrigue me deeply, and I can’t quite figure out what he is trying to tell us, but my word is screaming something, I know it but can’t speak it. So together let’s widely speculate on the possibilities. Perhaps we will stumble upon the message or at least develop an understanding of the context of his work.
His works seem to capture the eye by jarring the mind between two worlds, one that is populated by the tangible and recognizable hallmarks of our physical world and one constructed through myth, metaphor, and memory. The journey into each painting starts with the recognition of a beloved figure… Nick Cave, Elvis, Francis Bacon, Rembrandt or Pluto and Proserpina. Then you are set adrift floating across a kind of deja-vu: a boy sitting on the lap of a father at the table but the boy is the wild and young Nick Cave seated on the knee of the mature Nick Cave. In others, the long past Rembrandt fathers the masochistic Francis Bacon. These elements of a deja-vu are where Ben seems to hide his message but the shift from reality seems to blur our grasp on an understanding of the world depicted in front of us. Even though we may find it difficult to verbalize the comprehension of its message, they seem to speak to something that is inherent and already understood by us.
Take a look at Ben’s painting ‘Leonard Cohen Consoles Nick Cave’. This work was what intrigued Nick to seek out Ben which resulted in the painting ‘Self Cleanse’ painted for the Archibald Prize and was apart of Ben’s ‘Personal Mythologies’ series 2011. Ben describes his ‘Leonard Cohen Consoles Nick Cave’ to be about:
“The ability art has to console and inspire. In particular, it is about the flow of inspiration from one artist to another. Like for most people, life can be quite confusing for an artist, there are a lot of options out there and avenues to explore, and it often comes to point where you can feel lost and directionless. Some artists have the ability to settle you down and remind you of what is at the core of your life and art. I have admired both Leonard Cohen’s and Nick Cave’s music since my late teens. Although at times I have moved away to other interests I always seem to come back to them especially when I’m feeling a little lost and lacking in inspiration. I have read in various articles that Nick has felt the same about Leonard Cohen.”
Nick Cave on Leonard Cohen
“Les Inrockuptibles”- June ’94
An excerpt from Nick’s interview:
(Translated from French)
“I discovered Leonard Cohen with Songs of Love and Hate. I listened to this record for hours in a friend’s house. I was very young, and I believe this was the first record that really had an effect on me. In the past, I only listened to my brother’s records. I liked what he liked, followed him like a sheep. Leonard Cohen was the first one I discovered by myself. He is the symbol of my musical independence. I remember these other guys that came to my friend’s house that thought Songs of Love and Hate was too depressing. I’ve realized that this ‘depression’ theory was ridiculous. The sadness of Cohen was inspiring; it gave me a lot of energy. I always remember all this when someone says that my records are morbid or depressing.”
“So in this painting, Nick seems to be looking a little pensive and unsure of himself. I have painted him young and small to make him appear more fragile and childlike. As if he is under Leonards care. There is also a suggestion of lineage here. I have used the image of a wine as it is a symbol of the spiritual (shared interest), consolation and corruption. I have added corruption because a friend of mine’s father had an opposing argument that people like Cave and Cohen corrupt impressionable youth. Perhaps there is some truth that I’m not sure. I like to sneak an opposing idea into my artwork if I can. Finally, I would like to say that Nick Cave is not intended to look like a dummy, puppet or manikin. Although I don’t mind the idea that Leonard is speaking through Nick. Please note that Leonards’ hand is firmly on Nick’s shoulder.”
Ben’s illumination on this work gives us an insight into his intention with this painting. This insight into the depiction of the flow of inspiration between artists helps to illuminate the other works from his ‘Personal Mythologies’ Series. This mentorship that the artist seeks from their predecessors is evident in ‘The Influence (Rembrandt passes Francis a note)’. This painting depicts the noted influence Rembrandt has had on Francis Bacon. (If you haven’t seen Francis’ work, please go check it out, he is my favorite painter and may be well worth your while, this too can be said for Nick Cave but about music). But Ben’s description still seems to miss something that we know but can’t express. I think it is the parental role that these figures such as Cohen, Cave, Rembrandt, and Bacon have on us and each other. Perhaps best described as an estranged father, you can never speak to, but they have hidden their lessons in their work for us to find and help guide us through our own existence and suffering. This may be why these paintings speak so loudly, as the nurture and care that a parental figure can give is so strongly depicted, even across the generations, they still influence us so strongly.
Considering ‘Self Cleanse’ was painted for the Archibald Prize is directed towards the ‘parental role’ but one that resides within the individual. This role is evident in the work as it depicts 2011 Nick Cave mopping up the energy, destruction, and corruption of his younger self. It is almost reflective of how the older Nick has had to attend to the fires set by his younger self though not in regret or anger but merely in acceptance of adolescence that needs the fatherly hand to temper the storm and guide the energy.
Ben is working on an upcoming show at Nanda Hobbs in Sydney, that will be held mid next year. He shared with me a few of his new works and my word he has done it again. He has once again provided a recognizable incomprehension and this time he hasn’t been as overt in his depiction of the message. ‘Dive’ depicts the fleshy tangle of a male and female hurtling head first towards the placid surface of a pool. The puncture is inevitable, but their suspension in paint ever builds an incredible tension within the work. As you look a little closer, you may begin to recognize the posture of a hand clasped to her ribs or the postural curve of her hips. The tangle of flesh is ‘The Rape of Proserpina’ by Gian Lorenzo Bernini but one that seems to depict the plunge into the underworld.
The second work he shared with me is ‘White Night’. This work also depicts two entangled figures poised above an inevitable splash that can never come. The familiar poolside accouterments of fences, sun beds, and umbrellas are spot illuminated by the glow of ambient pool lights scattered across the poolside landscape and into the vibrant turquoise pool. The deep shadows of the entwined figures loom heavy on the unpunctured surface, cutting the world into a world of light and dark. This work too draws from Bernini’s era of contrapposto and chiaroscuro, but what ‘White Night’ and ‘Dive’ are saying I don’t have an answer for that, other than wild speculation. I asked Ben what he thought the message he is trying to convey was:
“Unfortunately it is a little early for me to give you a definitive answer on the meaning behind these painting as I have only painted two in this series and I don’t like to clamp down on meaning too early. I have a few ideas swirling around; however, I find broader more interesting ideas come out with further work. However, I can say a few things at this stage. I do love Bernini’s work for it amazing dynamic and naturalism. There are a few important differences between his sculpture and my painting [‘Dive’]. The female figure in my painting is much more in control. She looks calm, and only she can see the water coming. One hand is breaking the water, and the other is either pushing the man’s head away or perhaps protecting it. The male figure is much slighter than Bernini’s. His legs are closer together rather than the powerful stance of Bernini’s Pluto. And of course they are both upside down and airborne rather then just the female being lifted helplessly off her feet. The other painting [‘White Night’] is not based on Bernini except for the hand on the back.”
So, for now, we must merely speculate. Let us know what you think Ben’s new works suggest. Be sure to check out the full body of work at his upcoming exhibition at Nanda Hobbs in Sydney, as it might relieve the tension.
All Images are courtesy of the Ben Smith.