Grapes, portals or polka-dots – choose your own adventure through Ben Buchanan’s hallucinogenic pop. Dan Poynton takes a trip.
Walking into Ben’s grungy studio in the retro industrial building he shares with other artists, in Mt Victoria, Wellington, I’m greeted by the scent of paint and cigarette smoke, and pulsing underground music of uncertain era. It’s a band from Detroit, he says, as I plonk down on a welcoming old couch. “Do you mind if I smoke?” Ben asks easily, making me feel like a flatmate he’s forgotten he has. “Sure, my father used to smoke Camels,” I reply. “Ah, Camels are strong! I should give up but…” Ben says as he rolls himself another smoke.
Ben is no art snob. A cigarette or an emoji interests him as much as a Picasso or a Pollock. “The art history books I looked at as a kid are just as inspirational and valid to me as the record covers and comic books I collected,” says Ben, though it’s extremely difficult to get him talking about his past. “There are a lot of pop culture references in my work. A cover of a Slayer record is just as important as a David.”
Cigarettes, emojis and other mundane objects lurk, transmogrified, in the canvases he’s working on for his upcoming Sour Grapes exhibition at City Gallery in December. “An emoji is a perfect example of something that’s seen as tacky and lowbrow but is actually deceptively sophisticated. People use them in different ways; the meaning is not fixed. I really like referencing things like that in my work.” There’s a hallucinogenic pop feel to these canvases, from the flattish, starkly contrasted palettes to the figuration redolent of comic-books and animation. “There are still so many people, especially in the art world, who don’t see the relevance of things outside the fine art canon. I guess I’m kinda pushing against that because I find it so unfathomable. How is arcade culture not just as interesting as Colin McCahon?”
His joint Sour Grapes exhibition with Wellington-born Martin Basher is the brainchild of curator Aaron Lister. Now based in New York, Martin makes painting-sculpture hybrids that play with commercial imagery in a similar way that Ben riffs on pop art. “Aaron thought there are some interesting crossover points in our practices.” Both artists have been working with spherical motifs recently. Ben’s spheres originate from a love of ornamental glass grapes, which symbolise his fascination with the arcane/mundane divide. “Glass grapes could be seen as something tacky or cheap, but they can also be Italian and chic. But I'm not saying, ‘This is a grape’. They’re also orbs, or bubbles. When they’re flatter they could be portals or holes, and when they’re brighter they’re like polka dots. The things in my work create multiple readings.”
The exhibition title came from a joke Martin made which “kind of stuck”. “If someone thinks that I’m trying to tell them that I’m a sour grape, I guess that’s fine, but that’s not really what the title is about. It’s much more nuanced.” The exhibition title refers in part to the legendary grapes depicted by the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, which were so realistic that birds flocked to feed on them. But Ben and Martin paint at a time when the idealism and pure aesthetics of Zeuxis have “soured” under the angst of “climate emergency, extractive capitalist excess, and swirling cultures of misinformation.” “I guess ‘sour grapes’ refers to different versions of nature. For example, 50 years ago in New Zealand agriculture was presented as ‘nature’. Now we know it’s not, and it’s stuffing up what was there previously.” Ben says that contrasting colonial and Māori views of Te Taiao (the natural world) illustrate these different versions of nature. “I’m really interested in what I call ‘Middle-earth nature’, where natural characters are coded with good and evil.” Middle-earth nature, was the nature of colonisation, of good and bad trees. “There was a time when native trees were not wanted. The nature that existed here during colonisation was something to be feared and controlled.” But political and environmental issues are not explicit in Ben’s work. “I’m not trying to make a comment about how I’m more upset about climate change than anyone else, or that I have a special insight to it, but I have a way of being able to talk about it through these paintings.”
Ben grew up in New Plymouth and Masterton in the 70s and 80s, but his life-story is hard to pin down. This obviously doesn’t bother him – he’s much more into talking about his work in the present – but his Te Ātiawa and Taranaki whakapapa seem important to him. However, like environmental issues, Māoritanga is whispered rather than declaimed in Ben’s work. “I feel like it’s just implicit in everything I do. The work doesn’t look explicitly Māori necessarily, but Māori art doesn’t have to look like Māori art,” he says, pointing at some curling figuration on one of the canvases. “But there are definitely clues in the work. These patterns here could be imitating kōwhaiwhai patterns.” Even in his earlier more abstract vinyl work, pulsating brightly with concentric geometric shapes, Māori resonances can be felt. “You could compare that to weaving or tukutuku. This stuff runs through all of my work.”
Ben defines his main interest in art as “abstraction and pattern-making”. “I like the term patternmaking because abstraction is often associated with macho Western modernism. Patternmaking can refer to art that exists outside the Western canon – to indigenous arts – and it also has a feminine quality. You might associate it with sewing or something, so it opens all that stuff up. I’m not trying to be Jackson Pollock, that’s for sure. I’m trying to make a place where I can critique that kind of stuff.”
Ben majored in sculpture at the Otago School of Fine Arts and later completed a post graduate diploma in painting at Elam. And last year he finished his Masters in Fine Arts at Massey University in Wellington, the place he’s been circling back to since the 90s. “It feels like home,” is all Ben says. And, although he had residencies in 2012 and 2014 with highbrow galleries in Beijing and Bangalore, it was once again the lowbrow that excited Ben more. “The work of the arts community in Bangalore wasn’t so interesting, but what was happening just out on the street was. There were creative practises as part of daily rituals, like the sticker art for vehicles. That kind of stuff was super rad.”
Ben is mysterious about his future, like his past, when I ask him what’s next after Sour Grapes. “I dunno – just more work,” he says flatly – and then laughs raucously. I suggest he’s a bit of a man of mystery in both life and art. “I guess so,” he says – and another outrageous laugh. “Maybe there’s some mystery implicit because I’m not trying to tell you one thing, but I want you to be able to see things that are tangible and then you can make some associations. I’m not trying to be a mystic – I’m trying to make something interesting. But I might just be adding more rubbish to the world, I don’t know.”
From left: Ben Buchanan, 17 Glass Grapes/Post Ceramic (bright bacco 1), Flashe on canvas, 760 x 610mm, 2022. Ben Buchanan, 15 Glass Grapes/Post Ceramic (dark gris 2), Flashe on canvas, 510 x 400mm, 2022. Ben Buchanan, 18 Glass Grapes/Post Ceramic (bright baco 2), Flashe on canvas, 760 x 610mm, 2022
Photos by Shaun Waugh
And his approach to creating art? “I try to let the work lead me. There’s no planned drawing. The composition and the drawing are happening at the same time.” He’s not what you’d call a neurotic worker. “No, I feel quite casual about it. And at the moment most things are kind of working – not many mistakes are being made. But I’m pretty forgiving on myself like that I suppose.” Another big laugh. But Ben is not joking about his purpose as an artist, nor the drudgery it can involve. “It takes a lot of time in here making this stuff. I’ve dedicated my life to it. And I have to keep myself entertained while I’m doing it, so I’m hoping that makes it interesting for people to look at. I’m trying not to die of boredom – that’s what I’m aiming for.”
First published in Art Zone #93