Thursday, March 3, 2011

Artist Interview: Ben Skinner and the Jealous Curator

"Try A Little Tenderness, As Painful As It Seems", presented by The Jealous Curator, is a must-see show by artist Ben Skinner that opens at Honfleur Gallery on Friday, March 4, at 7PM. Drinks and refreshments will be served. 1241 Good Hope Road SE.

Below is an interview I did with Vancouver-based artist Ben Skinner and The Jealous Curator. Skinner, 33, grew up in small-town Petrolia, Ontario, went to school in Nova Scotia and Chicago, and is known for his clean, text-based mixed-media works that are site specific - which in this case means that he created most of the pieces for this show as a direct response to the Anacostia neighborhood and his perception of its current influences and evolutions.

Skinner's show is curated by The Jealous Curator, a blogger-turned-tangible-world-curator (this is her first off-line show). An artist herself, she always felt stunted by the feeling that others were coming up with more innovative work than she was - so The Jealous Curator began a daily blog two years ago that profiles artists across the world whose work she is jealous of.

Spunky, intellectually curious, and highly skilled, Ben Skinner (BS) and The Jealous Curator (JC) have created a must-see show at Honfleur and along the neighborhood's main streets that will be talked about for a very long time.

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Where should art be seen?

I think what's great about Honfleur Gallery is that they have a balance of local artists and artists from other areas. If you just did one or the other, things might get a little stagnant. I think its great to show people in this community what's outside and in other areas – but its also good for people in community to be proud of who's here and what is here that can be celebrated and discussed.

JC: Art can be very untouchable in a way – especially as a kid – my parents took me to the Vancouver art gallery as a kid and I felt “I could never be in here." For the youth, having spaces locally shows them "you know, I could do this." It's accessible.

BS: I think galleries are an important part of the community – to be able to step into a space that is outside of the advertising / commodity world where all the text you read has some kind of ulterior motive other than to just make you think.

I would like to see more art seen in public space. I think galleries are great, and great for supporting artists. One downside to galleries, though, is that that they are limiting in that there is a certain type of person who will enter a gallery. Maybe someone doesn’t understand art or doesn’t think it is for them or about them. A gallery is usually a quiet, empty space where people can sometimes feel uncomfortable. I really think public mural pieces are important, and public things like the Big Chair...

...which was built as an advertisement...

BS: ...but is now a landmark. That’s one of the reason I love public art so much - it creates landmarks that people can use to map out the city. So much of corporate looking public art looks like “art by committee” and seems to be chosen for its safeness. The ones I see too much of are like a big abstract modernist blob of steel on a street corner.

You attended art undergrad and went to grad school at the Art Institue of Chicago. Do you think that your education had an influence on the style of expression and the diversity of media you work with today?

BS: When I went to grad school there was a shift in the way I worked. I was more interested in doing socially conscious works and public work. In the art world they use a term called public intervention for pieces like that where you’ve put something out there for the public without going through the proper channels. It often means it’s a temporary or guerrilla style piece. I love the action of that and the reclaiming of public space to the larger public than just the people who come into a gallery.

So then does graffiti also fit into that category? It almost sounds like a glorification of vandalistic art. Where does one draw the line?

BS: I was never interested in the aesthetic of graffiti because it speaks to a smaller audience – really just the community of graffiti artists, where others mostly see it as vandalism and urban decay. I think that the vinyl lettering I do is a way to, in a very clean and professional looking way, communicate something different.

BS: I’m also conscious about the types of buildings I'm putting them on. I'm putting them on abandoned and vacant storefronts – and it gives a poetic voice to a space that people aren’t really caring about right now – it's not in anyone's way.

JC: What I love about them is that it puts such a human voice on these public places – there was one in Chicago on an abandoned jewelry store that said “I fell in love here once”. It adds a human history to forlorn spaces.

Downtown Chicago had a very anti-graffiti stance where you would be fined for having cans of spray paint on you – I never associated myself with the graffiti kids, but I saw where they came from by being shat upon by city officials and having works buffed out overnight. Mine lasted longer because it is almost camouflaged as signage. It didn’t look like graffiti because it was in Helvetica.

What are your preferred mediums and why?

BS: I don’t really have preferred mediums. I think what I like to do is experiment with materials – keeping it in flux all the time. I don’t want to get locked into being a “painter” or a “sculptor”. But, the use of text has been within a lot of my work for many years. I love working with words and how they are interpreted to have different meanings.

BS: I don’t do the super realistic stuff all that often. For me, the concept needs to be strong or it just looks like illustration. I want for the idea to stand out as strongly as the technical skill.

Have you had to take on more conventional jobs to pay the bills, and if so how have they influenced your art?

Out of art school I started doing window displays for Urban Outfitters. I got to hone some technical construction skills that I didn’t have experience with in art school, and got to learn by basically teaching myself. From there I ended up working for a Canadian women's retailer called Aritzia – so now I am currently their visual display developer. I work out of their head office and they have about 47 stores – which translates to about 100 windows. I come up with the concept for those and design and produce them. That has been the best job in the world for me because I can experiment with all sorts of techniques, materials, and processes that I wouldn’t be able to afford if I was doing it myself.

BS: I've been able to refine a sense of finish and detail that’s important in the display industry, and is more and more important in my art because I can't live with a piece of fishing line hanging loose or a scuff somewhere – it has to be as perfect as possible.

You're not a flaky artist at all – you know how long things are going to take to build because you actually build things. He does this every day at work, so he can figure out a way to get his site-specific art pieces done on time.

Do you feel that the media that you work with should represent our present day?

BS: I don’t think that it has to at all – otherwise there would only be new media internet art, you know? Everything would be social media art projects. I think that having variety is the best approach.

JC: It makes a richer art environment. Painting can be so traditional – but it's the things that people are doing with it. Mixed media can be so creative – I think that that’s why I love Ben's work.

How have your expectations or interests changes over the years?

BS: I'm more conscious of the context in which my artwork is shown and the community that is seeing it. Knowing that I had a show in this neighborhood wasn’t just an opportunity to show a bunch of painting that I've already done.

JC: Stuff that is relevant to the neighbor’s experience and life.

BS: I strive to do work that is site specific. Its not that the text will specifically have to do with Vancouver or something...

JC: ..but that there’s not a disconnect. There are other neighborhoods that are going through similar evolutions, but if the show were to go someplace else, he'd have to make other specific pieces.

BS: Sometimes I think of something and think “oh that would be a really clever piece”, but other times it has to be relevant to a specific place.

Do you see yourself as a political artist?

BS: I'm a part-time political artist.

JC: It's political in that you’ve thought about the issues and you want to talk about them.

BS: Politics is a slippery word and I don’t really know what it means anymore. I'm actually not that interested in politics as a governmental system. I'm interested in it in the way that it affects people's lives at the grassroots level, and how it affects individuals and communities - but I know the two can't be completely separated. I'm not a political activist, but I feel like the work I do for my audience is a small way that I can make a kind of change.

Why should someone come see your show?

BS: I think they should know that the art was made with them, the neighborhood, and the city in mind - conscious of the changes it is going through. I’d like for people to be able to see the pieces and think about them in that context.

* * *

Skinner's show is opening the same night as a show at The Gallery at Vivid Solutions (2208 MLK Ave SE): Cartograph - works in mixed-media collage by GĂ©rard Lange, which opens at 6PM. Please come out for the shows, walk MLK and Good Hope to see the guerrilla art, and stop in at Uniontown or Big Chair for a drink. Hot.


kiki said...


mrb said...

David, Great questions! I'm excited to see it.

Jeff said...

Great interview! I love Ben's creativity and intelligence. I hope he continues to take his show on the road!

Dear PM said...

excellent work ben! Come show in Montreal!

Anonymous said...

8 new public interventions in Anacostia. What do YOU think?

Anonymous said...

Anacostia is "evolving"? And Honfleur is great for the community?
Come on. Most of Anacostia has still never been in the gallery after over 3 years!
Why pretend? It's just gentrifiers trying to take the prime real estate and historic houses- without inciting a riot. This gallery caters to "certain" folks and invites black kids and select natives to special parties and seminars to fulfill the requirement of "giving back".
I was born and raised in Ward 7 and 8. I love art. I'm a member of MOMA! But I was not informed about HOnfleur. You have to seek out art news info like this to find places like Honfleur and you have to keep checking back with them to know what they are doing next. "Regular" inner city people don't do that and DON'T KNOW TO DO THAT! If Honfleur and it's non-profiteers have been in this community for as long as they claim, they know that. What kind of outreach is that selective and limited. I worked at Anacostia Public Library and Honfleur didn't even have info or outreach there. This is not for low income, black, Anacostia residents. Let's be frank. Its the usual steps before whites move in and blacks priced out.
I'm realistic about they types of people who live in Wards 7 and 8 and I am aware of how neighborhoods change every 30, 40, 60 years. What I resent is the pretending and the government grants being given to these so-called community arts programs to benefit urban poor. But most of the money goes to non-black, non-poor, non-"native" and instead gives alot of middle class whites their first jobs as managers, gallery heads, curators, featured artists, owners of art/photo studios.
Steal from the rich government. Give to the middle?

DHR said...

Fantastic project!