INTERVIEW: Ben Brandt

 

Ben Brandt’s life is currently in flux—lucky for us, he paused just long enough for a zingchat. Recently graduated from theMFA program at UT Austin, his studio (and the rest of his life) is now in New York City. Brandt has held residencies at Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, NY and Vermont Studio Center. A few of the venues where his work has been shown include Second Bedroom Project Space and Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, Fort Worth Contemporary, and Champion Contemporary in Austin. Brandt was also included in the 2011 15 to Watch: New Art in Austin at Austin Museum of Art. We spoke following his farewell to Texas, his solo show at Co-Lab Project Space, All_Over.

Interview by Josh T. Franco

 

I was not expecting to discuss clothing following your recent show at Co-Lab, but now I can not stop thinking about those peeks of plaid and some comments you made about the role of clothing. More broadly, something about texture and material as a “screen” between us and the world. An odd thing to end up thinking about in an immersive environment of pulp-coated objects. With such a powerfully monochrome space you created, why those two or three dusty plaid accents?

There’s a number of reasons that may seem obscure if we keep in mind that the primary impulse to expose those items was relatively intuitive and also formal. I like contrast, and I wanted a different kind of break in the monotony of the surfaces in the space.  But more importantly, I was thinking about the relationship between buildings and bodies and the sort of primal need to stay warm (not an issue that comes to the fore in a place like Texas, but I grew up in the Midwest); the way we retain heat energy with clothing and a layer of body fat -- an inner and outer layer of insulation that is mirrored in the mise-en-scene of the installation. Except that here, the insulation that is normally found on the interior of a building’s structure is being presented on the surface of everything.  Part of my project is to draw out the relationship between bodies and buildings; the systems and structures they share. So you’ve got the plaid flannel shirt and the plaid “canvas” that is a kind of skin, and then the two-by-four wrapped in plaid is a kind of progression of “clothing” the building.  

I think, really, what those items do, is to become the “middle” period in the history of this building’s sort of fictional timeline, as if those were the last items to end up in this room as it slowly accumulated years’ worth of sediment before the final intervention of the supposed present day, with the painted poles and lighting.  


There is certainly that sense of time that comes with accumulation in your objects, often compared to one what might encounter scuba diving a shipwreck. There’s also a very immediate sense of time though that is post-apocalyptic, Pompeii-like. So there’s a vertigo that was particularly emphasized by the floor-to-ceiling coverage of your Co-Lab show: is this an ancient ruin? Or did I survive a nuclear blast that happened within the last few hours? It puts the viewer in that ambiguous position. How do you understand this very active vibration?

Yeah, vibration. I’m glad you can get that. I think vibration is fundamental to the nature of things, right? That it’s all energy vibrating at different frequencies.  But in terms of time, it becomes more an issue of scale: did the timeline of this scenario happen over ten thousand years, or did happen it instantaneously? And in a way, these are the same thing.  All of time is made up of one dimension, the present “now”, so how long or short is the “now”? It makes my head spin to think about, but I do believe that all of time is enfolded in the present moment, and our experience limits us to seeing just a small part of that at one time.  I want the viewer to experience that uncertainty as well, to get a sense of the enormity of scale that is available within every moment. This aspect of simultaneity, when something is two or more things at once, is a fascinating aspect of art objects; it is BOTH two different things AND the same thing. So where is the line between the two? the division of states through which it flickers back and forth? It reminds me of the “screen” you mentioned in your first question. Is the back and forth continuous like a sine wave, or discreet?  For me, it’s the coniunctium oppositorum, the unity of opposites.  I’m talking about the fundamental nature of reality, man.

I recently got to spend some time on Lake Michigan, and a friend pointed out a strange phenomena related to the horizon line of the lake.  Taken all at once, it appeared to be the most “straight” line that simply divided the air and the water, but when you tried to focus on it, it started to jump around and waver and shake: this very fixed line becomes elusively indefinite. I think this kind of vibration exists just below the surface of things, which is another, symbolic, interpretation of the plaid fabric in the installation. The nature of plaid fabric is so regular; its a conventional grid.  But the effects that that kind of regularity produces is often very visually dynamic.


If I may rely on yet one more natural metaphor; there’s a cave-like silence about your work. It is silence, but not in the negative sense. Large amounts of paper pulp and insulation have a profound effect on an environment’s sound. How do you think about sound? Would you consider running sound experiments in an environment like the one you created at Co-Lab for future projects?

Sound is not my preferred medium, but I do take it into consideration as a part of the vibrational aspect of our experience.  If you read about John Cage’s experiences with anechoic chambers, he talks about his realization that, even the most scientifically soundless spaces are filled with the noises our bodies produce, that there is really no way to experience true silence, right? Silence is full of sound.

In this installation, the apparent silence does serve to foreground the experience of the vibration of time and timelessness. It was often the first thing people noticed upon entering the space, that there was a deadening of sound.  I like that the piece has a direct effect on the viewer’s body, it is another way to connect the artwork to the person experiencing it. For me, it was a very death-like silence, to be in a space that could be a thousand years old made me feel like I was a thousand years old, which made me think, “well I must be dead then.” But that’s just me.  

My favorite sound artist is a woman who’s name I’m trying to rediscover, who made a kind of electronic noise/music that caused the listener’s eardrum to vibrate in a way that it produced it’s own sound. It was thrilling and invasive and layered, I loved it.

 

The relationship between object and pedestal is treated in a striking range of ways in your work. There are works placed directly on the floor, e.g., your depiction of the universe through a heavily treated dropcloth; there are works where objects and shelving are surfacely homogenized through the indiscriminate application of pulp and insulation on the entire apparatus; and there is at least one work, Bog Tree (Sediment Settles), in which the insulation-laden object sits atop a rusted rectilinear platform you constructed especially for it, if I am not mistaken. In the latter, there is a fascinating relationship between two types of decay; the negative decay of the metal enacted by the rusting process, and the additive decay of the object layered with abject substances. Do these represent a progression in your thinking? Or are they co-temporaneous forms you play with for what reasons?

To be honest, this is an issue I struggle with; at what register, at what degree of remove do I want the pieces to engage with the viewer? Which is important, I think, as it has some ideological implications that I haven’t worked through yet.  And it comes back to the those all-important mediating devices of the support: the stretched canvas, and the pedestal. Despite it’s bourgeois implications, I’ve always been a fan of the pedestal. To me, it is the “frame” that signifies a remove from the world of the “real” back into the realm of symbol. It says this thing is what it is, and, it is representative of something else besides what what the viewer sees in it’s surface attributes.  I guess the same could be said about the gallery space itself, but that’s a distinction that still generally resides below full consciousness. Some of my earlier works, that were wooden structures with various treatments, I saw as “models”, a representation of an idea or a system that exists in another form.  So, I wanted the viewer to consider that these objects were metaphorical constructions of ideas; that the sculptures referred back to ideas outside of themselves. I don’t know, I could be over-thinking it, or assuming too much.

Lately, it seems that work is more within the realm of the here and now, that everyday and over-looked objects are filled with mystery.  But I don’t necessarily want to rely on the context of the gallery to provide that type of frame. I’m a big proponent of living with art, and allowing a relationship with an object to grow and deepen. It’s an aspect of art that resides so heavily in the realm of ideas that it requires the institution of a museum to sustain it, that leaves me feeling a certain lack.

One of my intentions for the Co-Lab Project was to acknowledge the setting of the installation, both real and imagined, as the garage/barn that it once was, in order to upset the viewer with the indistinction of gallery as symbolic space, and architecture of real space.  Thus it was filled with stuff that you’d find in a garage, stacks of scrap wood, utility shelving, a table piled with various tools of indeterminant use, a rotting hammock and an old work shirt, all transformed into sculpture, not by their location in a gallery but by their transformation via accumulation of a “foreign” substance.  Even the “paintings” that were installed in this garage cum gallery, served as tools to measure the space or provide lighting/illumination.

 

You have stated before that your move to sculpture came out of a frustration with the two-dimensional media of painting and photography that are your background. Along with your use of abject and industrial materials, it is difficult not to hear echoes of artists like Donald Judd and Eva Hesse, though the results are certainly different. How do you understand yourself in that lineage constructed by art history, if at all? How is your work imbricated with contemporary post-industrial and cultural conditions? In Austin? In the US?

The art historical context question is difficult because it’s hard to see myself making a contribution within that narrative, but I would choose different artists to align myself with. Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg addressed the complications of materials and abstraction in a less pure way than Judd and Hesse did, I think. My model artist of the 70’s would be Joseph Beuys if I weren’t such a (reluctant) cynical capitalist. I see myself dealing with the issues at the intersection of materials and images, artifacts and objects, and the body and it’s environment. But at heart, I’m an expressionist, and I read my choices as clues and symbolic artifacts that lead me towards deeper meaning, like dreams.

I feel torn between the agency and artifice that I can command with traditional art materials and practices, and the more current practice of using the materials of existing contemporary culture.  I think an artist like Rachel Harrison utilizes this tension to good effect, but it’s not a tension that I want to focus on.  Rather, I see it as a struggle between Romantic and Classical worldviews that I wish could be brought into accord.  I see Texas artists like Andy Coolquit and Sterling Allen moving in that direction, mixing both laid-back and rigorous attitudes towards cultural detritus with loaded (?) narratives that are neutralized by the artists’ playful yet deep understanding and utilization of abstraction.

I lean more towards romanticism and fantasy, with only a toe in the camp of assessing the here and now. My flights of escapism and drug-induced enlightenment and other utopias are only tempered by a practical consideration of the need to address realism as way to actually live successfully.  The artifacts and materials of Industry were my initial introduction to the sublime. Our post-industrial condition still feels like a loss to me, and I’m hung up on the aura of faded glory of a centuries-old technological revolution.  Unfortunately, and despite my disavowal, whatever attitudes and ideologies of that era that made those artifacts possible, to the degree that I align myself with them, I  open myself up easily to criticism of my privileged condition.

 

You are preparing to move to New York City. What impact are you expecting this move from Austin to have on your work? What will you be leaving behind, conceptually, materially?

I imagine the work may shift in scale fairly dramatically if I decide to stop producing objects that end up in the trash heap because of my unwillingness to store them.  That wouldn’t be my preference, as I prefer to work at a scale that connects to architecture and the body, but maybe it will push the work to display it’s own discomfort more prominently.  

As much as I enjoy working outside of the studio, I love the mix of concentration and opportunity for dreamy imagination that a regular, private studio provides.  I have no idea what kind of studios will be available in NY, so that I’m almost grateful for the lack of adequate private studio space at the University of Texas that I had to learn how to deal with my first two years there.

The rest is uncertain. I have a vague sense that I need to limit the scope of mediums that I’ve employed over the last few years, which was basically everything you could think of.  But that could be a misconception of the requirements of engaging with the market for art, which by the way, I’m hoping to do.  But I will miss Texas, I like it here. The people, the climate, and a supportive art community have all been comforts that have helped to make me willing to experience some discomfort in a totally new place.