Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace

 

Sometimes life takes an unexpected turn. Sydney artist Ben Smith knows this better than most. Growing up, he didn’t believe becoming an artist was a possibility. It was after leaving home to study civil engineering that he become drawn to the arts. “Not long after I started painting a close friend of mine died suddenly. She was huge influence on me and I think I saw making art as a way of keeping her spirit alive,” shares Ben.

Another unexpected turn came after Ben’s then fiancee had a major health scare just a month before they were married. “Things were looking dire for a while there but then after some surgery the doctors completely reversed the diagnosis and we were given the all clear just three days before our wedding.” The biggest and most wonderful change of all was the birth of their first child just a couple of months ago. So it is not surprising that Ben’s solo show, which opened at Nanda\Hobbs Contemporary last week, is about the fundamental transitions in life.

In his work, Ben seeks to unify a series of complex and opposing qualities – the beautiful and the unsettling, the humorous and the sincere, the banal and the uncanny. Above all, an element of visual wit prevails in his captivating, expressive paintings.

We recently had a chat to the talented Sydney artist who says it is difficult for artists to make great art without the human figure in it. So put pictures of people on your walls, people!

 

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
Threshold, 122 x 85cm oil on board.

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
Ascension Geodesic, 120 x 80cm oil on board.

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
Beckoned, 70 x 96cm oil on board.

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
Portal, 91 x 122cm oil on board.

 

+ Hello Ben, welcome to Yellowtrace and thank you for taking the time to e-chat with us. Could you please give us a quick introduction on yourself? When did you first decide you wanted to become an artist and what path lead you to where you are today?

Hi Yellowtrace. I’m from blue-collar suburbia and growing up I didn’t believe becoming an artist was even a possibility. Oddly it wasn’t until I left home to study civil engineering that I really becane interested in the arts. Before I knew it I had long straggly receding hair and wore mismatching clothes. I listened to Nick Cave and read Russian literature. I began painting in my tiny dormitory room unknowingly getting high on gum turp fumes. Not long after I started painting a close friend of mine died suddenly, she was huge influence on me and I think I saw making art as a way of keeping her spirit alive.

 

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
Transition, 84 x 122cm oil on board.

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
The Natural Progression, 80 x 90cm.

 

+ What are you seeking to portray in your work? What is fundamental to your art practice – your philosophy and your approach?

In my work I like to combine the beautiful and the unsettling, the humorous and the sincere, the banal and the uncanny. Recurring themes in my work include doubt, divergence within a personality, the search for consolation and the fundamental transitions in life. I usually attempt to explore these themes through allegory, multi-layered allegory if possible.

I studied at a classical art school so my technique was initially aligned with the classical tradition. However in recent years I’ve begun exploring more expressive brushwork, colour and semi-abstraction. I’m always trying to push things a little further with each painting.

 

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
Vaporise, 70 x 90cm oil on board.

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
Portico 84 x122cm oil on board.

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
Terra Incognita, 168 x 122cm oil on board.

 

+ Tell us a little bit about your solo show with Nanda\Hobbs Gallery this month. Can we expect to see anything different?

I’ve been through a lot of changes in the past few years. I’ve gone from being single to engaged to married. My wife had a major health scare just a month before we were married, it was looking dire for a while there but then after some surgery the doctors completely reversed the diagnosis and we were given the all clear just three days before our wedding. The biggest and most wonderful change of all was the birth of our first child just a couple of months ago. So it is probably not surprising that my next show is about the fundamental transitions in life. The figures in this series are moving and transforming, passing in and out of metaphorical spaces, through light and dark. They are often seen on, or passing through, an otherworldly threshold. They are psyches held within a state of flux, selves undergoing transformation

This work is different from my previous work in that there is more emphasis on the environment in which the figures inhabit and I’m getting closer to abstraction in some areas. The abstraction helps the figures feel as though they are is less fixed and less solid. They are transforming. I’m also playing with colour a lot more. I love this part of my new approach. This development in my technique makes these works a lot more fun to paint while at the same time they have become much harder to resolve. The finish line has become much less clear.

 

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
Ascension, 122 x 90cm oil on board.

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
Immersion, 122 x 126 oil on board.

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
The Tour, 190 x 82 cm oil on board.

 

+ Who or what are some of your influences? What other artists and creatives in general do you admire?

I started off my career with classical influences like Rembrandt and Caravaggio. Contemporary artists I admire include Neo Rauch, Adrien Ghenie, Jenny Saville, Alex Kanevsky, Louise Hearman, and Justin Mortimer. I love any artist who is pushing the narrative, pushing the paint and pushing their subject matter in a new direction. It is an exciting time to be a painter. The pieces that were broken apart last century are being put back together in new and exciting ways.

Music is often a greater source of inspiration then any form of visual art. I love people like Jens Lekman, M Ward, Andrew Bird, Kate Bush and Regina Spektor. Ever since first year of university when a friend gave me a tape with Leonard Cohen on one side and Nick Cave on the other I have loved them both, the effect of their music was life changing. I somehow transformed from someone who was training to be a professional sportsman into someone who wanted to be an artist. Many years later, I placed both Leonard and Nick into a painting with Nick being consoled by a larger fatherly Leonard. One Christmas Nick came across this painting and decided to write to me saying that, although the image worried him a little, he really loved it. Through this I was lucky enough to paint Nick for the Archibald, which was an amazing experience.

 

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
The Influence-Leonard Cohen consoles Nick Cave, 110 x 132cm oil on board.

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
An invitation to dine, 105 x 122cm oil on board.

 

+ What do you feel is the most challenging part of being an artist today?

Just about everything about being an artist is a challenge. Many of those challenges are very rewarding. However recently I’ve seen many ultra passionate people fall away and stop making art due the financial challenges that occur when an artist becomes a parent.

+ And if you could change one thing about your industry, what would it be?

Well I’d like to see figurative painting make a big comeback. It has already started internationally however Australia seems to be lagging behind. Most of the greatest art in history involved the human figure, yet Australians in particular seem shy of it. It is hard for artists to make great art without the human figure. So put pictures of people on your walls people!

 

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
Bridge and Echo, 122 x 103cm oil on board.

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
Vivificatus, 90 x 87cm oil on board.

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
Escalator, 80 x 122cm oil on board.

 

+ What are some of your methods to staying motivated, focused and expressive?

Going back to my favourite music helps keep me focus. Regular exercise clears the mind and improves motivation, staying way from social media helps a lot too.

And your top 3 main sources of inspiration and references you are drawn to regularly?

I love reading books on history. I rarely get time to read fiction, I feel a little guilty if I do because there is so much that I need to learn from non-fiction. While I’m painting I listen to all types of music from pop to classical. It depends on what I need to do to adjust my mood for painting. My favourite film director is Ingmar Bergman. I torment my poor wife with his films from time to time.

 

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
It is all straight forward from here, 175 x 195cm oil on board.

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
Musiversal, 98 x 122cm oil on board.

 

+ Any interesting/ funny/ quirky facts that you could could share with us about your work?

On a hot day I once mistook my turps bottle for my water bottle. My turps is the low odour kind and I took three big gulps before the taste registered. I was very sick for 16 hours. There were no pleasing side effects.

+ What advice would you have to emerging artists who want to follow your path? What was some of your biggest lessons learned since starting your practice?

Paint pictures you’d love to have on your own wall. That way you just can’t lose. By that I don’t mean pictures to merely decorate your space. I mean pictures that you need to have with you.

Get out and talk to people, the art world isn’t that big and scary. It won’t be long before you know a lot of people and you’ll feel more comfortable in it.

Don’t drink your turps.

 

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
What comes out in the wash, oil on board.

 

Let’s get real:

+ If I was not an artist, I would be…

Very grumpy.

+ Three things every artists needs…

You definitely need a lot of energy. You need to be able to self learn. You need to be able to run with what you’ve got.

+ What’s the best mistake you have ever made?

Leaving home to study engineering.

+ What’s one thing other people may not know about you?

I can smoke up a dance floor.

+ It’s not very cool, but I really like…

Humming and occasionally doing impersonations of dinosaurs, apologies to my neighbours.

 

Interview: Sydney Artist Ben Smith | Yellowtrace
Doubt begins at breakfast (double self portrait) 126 x 169cm oil on board.


[Images courtesy of Ben Smith.]

 

About The Author

Dana Tomić Hughes
Founder & Editor
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Dana is an award-winning interior designer living in Sydney, Australia. With an unhealthy passion for design, Dana commits to an abnormal amount of daily design research. Regular travel and attendance at premier design events, enables Dana to stay at the forefront of the design world globally. While she is super serious about design, Dana never takes herself - nor design - too seriously. Together with her life and business partner, Dana is Boss Lady at Studio Yellowtrace, specialising in Design Strategy, Creative Direction and Special Projects. The studio takes a highly conceptual and holistic approach to translating brands & ideas into places & experiences.

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