Time & Memory: A Micro-Interview with Ben McLaughlin
Elaine Sexton: It was a challenge to select just a few images to represent your work. While each painting stands alone, once seen as a sequence I found looking at the entire body of work to be like reading a collection of poetry, each piece engages with and expands on the others. Some of the work shown here is from a recent exhibit, “Anyone Awake?,” intimate spaces: bedrooms, bathrooms, scenes from street corners and backyards, as well as portraits, the figure. And the sheer volume, too, 50 pieces, gives the impression that the work is composed as a “collection.” Would you share a few words about your process of composition?
Ben McLaughlin: I have always been a collector of images. In the studio I’m surrounded by boxes of cuttings and found photographs , shelves full of books and stacks of magazines. I constantly take photographs and draw or write brief descriptions in notebooks.
With an exhibition deadline on the horizon I will always think in terms of a body of work, yes, usually as if it’s a book or an album of some kind, but I will seldom have a preformed notion of it.
To struggle for some initial brief or concept just opens the door to procrastination and stasis for me, so I will spend days trawling my chaotic archive extracting starting points. I will find a hundred or so images as a long list, then choose whatever appeals to me most and just start to paint, then find another, and so on, at times beginning dozens of paintings in a couple of weeks.
Following that, links or patterns emerge, I find some subjects will then become more relevant in their increasing company, whilst others drop away. sometimes I feel it needs to be a wide range of subjects, other times a more targeted group or theme. For example with the exhibitions “Anyone Awake?” and “The Night Sky” I was living between London and New York, and the chronic jet lag led to often unwatchable late night t.v. and gazing at cities at night: I was definitely trying to evoke the feeling of a long and restless night. “Home and Contents,” on the other hand, became a kind of meditation on 20th Century history, bracketed by the seemingly constant news of refugees dying on their journey to Europe.
I rarely have any idea at the outset what the collection might become. I think essentially it’s a search for balance, all the work is really about time and memory, and I try to make it universal, but as I paint, chance and the weight of geography, solipsism or current events just shape it into a more specific and finite product.
ES: Each of these paintings telegraph isolation, focusing on compelling yet bleak details of a room or conversation or landscape that are most all identifiable as coming from mid-20th century western culture. Cast in a dim low light, in the small hours of the morning, where one is utterly alone, one obvious influence is Edward Hopper. And if one had any question, you’ve included an updated homage to “Gas,” is “00:40 A Night with Beyonce.” The climate of your work, though, is so distinctive, even dimmer and bleaker than Hopper’s. The gloom in the rooms, particularly those with figures, as in the nude or half clad women, brought to mind Edgar Degas. What draws you to the haze, this particular light, or the absence of it?
BM: The insomnia that shaped “Anyone Awake?” led to a lot of time spent alone, and a lot of time looking at light and how it falls. Looking outside in the dead of night, the unremarkable is often dramatically lit, and I enjoy that: there is something faintly amusing about a dumpster or a fence being the star. I guess the increased bleakness comes from modern lighting the ubiquity of sodium lamps, of fluorescent tubes t.v. and phone screens.
The nudes and the interiors often came originally from bad digital photographs: advertisements for motels and singles adverts, complaints on Trip Advisor. They seemed ephemeral and functional: I liked the idea of appropriating these things and in a way glorifying them by painting them. I found it satisfying to juxtapose an old fashioned and time consuming medium with the split second of a digital shutter and the vast indifference of the internet.
They are often blurred or hazy, as are the paintings of my own memories, and hopefully they overlap and merge, so one isn’t sure whether one is looking at the real or the imagined, and the prosaic is lent something magical, and anything too romantic is anchored somewhere by banality.
Hopper has always been an influence. I think I was nine when my mother first showed me some of his pictures, and that way of looking just kind of made sense to me, even then. Whilst his eye has always resonated with me, I sometimes struggle with his use of paint, and I frequently refer to the likes of Degas or Rembrandt or Sargent for their virtuosity, and like to imagine how they might handle painting an empty elevator or a lone monitor in an empty office.
ES: I understand you work in oil, and some paintings are as small as a post card, while others are very large, several feet high/wide. Clearly, you are drawn to intimate spaces: the bedroom, the bathroom, but, at same time, you are able to maintain that hush of intimacy in the landscape. What are your considerations in choosing, first, the subject, and, then, the right scale that suggests stature.
BM: I like the paintings to feel like they have a history, that somehow they have been around for years. Although I was born in the late 1960s, I feel very strongly linked by my parents to the world before that, and also to have one foot in the future through my son: so the subject matter and reference material I use spans a lot of time, and usually has any specifics of age removed. It is not intended to be nostalgic, nor particularly contemporary, but to kind of hover indeterminately in time, reaching back and forth through generations.
I think of it as trying to round up the endless indecisive moments that make up our lives: multiple visual realities, some stored in memory, on old photographic paper, others in front of our eyes.
My mother died last month. She had increasing dementia that could convince her that dreams about her childhood were as real as the twenty first century world she physically inhabited. It’s been a rather poignant and extreme articulation of what I have been thinking about and trying to manifest for the last twenty years or so.
I like to play with scale I have always really enjoyed working with paradoxes and contradictions, I find them often funny, sometimes moving, but fundamentally human.
For example In my last show, “Home and Contents,” there was a series of small paintings of explosions. No bigger than postcards these depictions of chaos and destruction were rendered impotent and ridiculous by their small wooden frames: they hung in a room with a picture of a dish sponge pompously painted and dark like a Dutch still life or a late Goya.
I frequently work on extreme scales. I think it’s because of how one engages with it. The paintings are frequently tiny, like the size of a cigarette packet or a postcard and one has to hold them in one’s hands, or step towards it and lean in if it is on the wall, there is an inherent intimacy there. Also because I work on panels about half an inch thick, and paint the edges, they become a small, solid object of something intangible, and that I find pleasing. Conversely, a large scale canvas just demands that you engage with it in some way.... even negatively. Moderate sized pictures have just always been hard for me to get on with, I don’t know exactly why, I’m perpetually trying to address it, but just get stuck every time!
Ben McLaughlin’s London gallery describes his paintings in “Anyone Awake?” as “pictorial compounds – potentially humorous or unsettling tangles of the once real and the imperfectly remembered, framed through their titles by the date of their manifestation and a corresponding context from that day’s news.” His paintings in oil are sometimes as small as a postcard, while others are as large as several feet, often uses photographs and travel brochures from the 1960s as a starting point for his work. McLaughlin was born in the UK and received his BA in Fine Art from Central St. Martin’s School of Art, London. He was awarded First Prize honors in 1992 from The Falkiners Fine Paper Young Artists Award, and that same year he received First Prize from the Cohen & Wofke Young Artist Competition, London and First Prize from the Cecio Collins Memorial Prize for Drawing, London. In 1994 and 1996 Ben received the Medaille d’Honneur de la Ville de Sallies de Bearn, France. In 2005 Ben was awarded the Artist’s Residency at The Joseph and Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut. His work has benn exhibited throughout Europe and the US. In addition to Wilson Stephens & Jones in the UK, he is represented by two galleries in the United States, Heskin Contemporary, New York, and Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco. For more information, please visit http://www.benmclaughlin.net.