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Ben Ashton: History and Meaning of Contemporary Art

Complex subject matter and ambiguous ideas are at the core of London-based contemporary artist Ben Ashton’s work. As simultaneously a subject of his work and the creative mind behind it, Ashton explores the intricacies of living in modern times and experiencing the political and social weight of the past. Mystical and otherworldly, the powerful set of works by the contemporary mastermind enchants the viewers and immediately pulls them into the stories portrayed.

As MINUS37, we chatted with Ben about his education and upbringing, the inspiration and meaning behind his current series of work, his need for community and being open to opportunities.

From "Empire" Series by Ben Ashton

Tell us a little bit about your life. Was art always present?

My father is an artist and mother was an art teacher so I was constantly surrounded by art from a very young age. I was always taken to exhibitions growing up and now museums play a very important part in my happiness, I use them as spaces to meditate within and to figure out my direction in life.

From "Empire" Series by Ben Ashton

What is your artistic background, when and how did you start? How did you end up with the style you currently work in?

I finished my BA at Newcastle University in 2006 and then completed my MA at the Slade in 2008. I was half way through my BA when I started to teach myself to paint from books; prior to this, I was into performance art but I became hooked by the gradual learning process of painting. I tried to learn as I imagined an apprentice might, but instead of having a master to learn from, I had books. I stood in front of paintings in museums for hours in to figure out layering techniques; it was then through trial and error that I ended up with my own style. I focused on different master painters until I felt I had gleaned what I wanted from each, and so now I have this experiential inventory from which I can pick and choose, to create what I want.

From "Empire" Series by Ben Ashton

How do you usually work? Walk us through the process.

I still see myself as a performance artist in some respects, I use my body as an actor uses theirs, by playing different roles. I use throwaway materials like plastic bags and scraps of fabric to create basic costumes, I find body paint to be quite useful too. I digitally adulterate the images I take of myself in order to give a vague direction to where the final painting may go – I find these digital elements contrast nicely with the historical theme and style of the painting.

When it comes to painting the image, I will often begin the process in different ways each time, to keep things fresh, and so I don’t get bored. At the moment I’ve been working a lot on paper so I can start without a great deal of preparation. After the paper is sized and distressed, I start with a basic monochromatic contour drawing – drawing has become an increasingly important part of what I do: If you work out all your problems in the drawing, the painting can have greater immediacy. I work in initially tints, and eventually glazes to enhance depth and saturation. Right at the end of the painting I drag impasto paint with a bunch of purpose made tools to give the work the visceral impact which is so important to me at the moment. In about the last two years, I have cut my working time down from weeks, to in some cases only a couple of days.

From "Empire" Series by Ben Ashton

What are the sources of your inspiration and ideas?

I tend to see the history of art as an index from which I can borrow, depending on what’s going on in contemporary life. At the moment I’m focusing on the Regency era and the birth of the British empire, a period of time that spawned a huge amount of self-congratulatory portraiture which now lines the walls of our museums and institutions. Britain is obsessed with its own history and how influential we used to be; we view our history with rose-tinted glasses, remembering our perceived victories whilst overlooking our various misdemeanors. Nationalism has been stoked recently by representing the past as something we should be moving back to, often painting a distorted picture of a greatness that never was. In my current work I take these confident Regency poses and subvert and disrupt them, taking a ‘strong and stable‘ part of my heritage and making it unsafe and tainted.

How did you find your first commercial clients?

When I finished my BA at Newcastle University, I was scouted by two London galleries that had been visiting shows all over England. During the summer, I showed with both galleries selling all the work I had created so far, funding my studies and paying for my life in London.

"Transfiguration" by Ben Ashton

Tell us about the journey to your first gallery show/exhibition. How was your work discovered?

When I finished my MA, I was awarded a residency at the college over the summer period; it was during that residency that I was picked up by another art dealer who was in the process of creating his own gallery. I decided to start exclusively working with him as he offered me a studio in Bloomsbury and my first solo exhibition. We decided to put on a pop up show near the Whitechapel gallery in an old stonemasons shop. It was an exciting time and I had to work extremely fast to put that show together, the walls in the stonemasons were not suitable to hang work on, so I created a series of octagonal spaces within the building to show my work in. Incidentally, I met my wife when I was working on that show and we have been collaborating ever since.

"Ghanime" by Ben Ashton

What is the main message behind what you do?

The idea of legacy is very important to me and plays a huge role in my work. Although my works must reflect aspects of contemporary culture, they also must convey a sense of timelessness as they become a part of that endless canon which is the history of art. The reason I use oil paint is that it has been proven through history to stand the test of time, and as I have gained so much from artists that have been dead for hundreds of years, I hope my work will serve those in the future in the same way. I also hope that in referencing art history that I bring to mind the cyclical nature of humanity, with all the various advancements we make, we still seem to make the same mistakes.

From "Empire" Series by Ben Ashton

Where do you hope your artistic journey takes you? What are your goals?

I tend to take every year as it comes, but lately I have enjoyed the idea of showing internationally. This year I will be showing in LA, Vancouver and Hamburg and then next year back to LA again. I think my solo show in Vancouver will dictate my new direction, I usually find that every solo exhibition marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. I try not to think too far into the future, as it’s important to live in the present and be thankful for what you have already achieved. It’s also important for me to be flexible with my career path, to take up all sorts of different opportunities and not put all my eggs in one basket. All of the major downfalls I have experienced in life have come from putting too much emphasis on a single project and not keeping mind open to other possibilities.

"Hieronymus and Dafu" by Ben Ashton

Could you give any tips or tricks for young emerging artists?

Every artist should have their own path and success should be measured by how stimulating your life is, whatever that means to the individual. Getting the work out into the world as much as possible has been important to me, the more people who see it, the more likely you are to find people who connect with it. Social media has become increasingly important to me in reaching this wider audience but I think younger artists already know way more about this than I do. Group shows are important, finding other artists that have similar interests to you can help you carve out a niche in an ever expanding art world. I don’t think it is said enough that being nice and complimentary to other artists is important, without a sense of community we can be very lonely and bitter. I’ve seen how isolation can negatively effect the mental state of artists, in contrast the most successful artists I’ve met, have also been the most social.

All images and text courtesy of Ben Ashton

You can view more work by Ben on his Instagram and website.

Intro written by Natalie Kotok

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