OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Ben Willis

Man Candy (detail), 2017. Acrylic, Flock, Glitter, Resin, Spray Paint on Panel. 14" x  24"

BEN WILLIS creates vibrant juxtapositions of color, texture and brushwork, which appear to be separated by clean borders. But in actuality, the smooth, one-directional brushwork never meets the swirling impasto at this sharp edge; the matte acrylic and the glitter never square off defending their own territory. Instead, each hovers above or below the other, floating harmoniously on layers of resin. Ben earned his BFA in Sculpture at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio (2005) and went on to earn his MFA in Painting at Arizona State University in Tempe. He received a Contemporary Forum Artist Grant in 2014 and has had solo shows at Rhetorical Galleries (2016) and Pela Contemporary Art (2013), both in Phoenix, Arizona. His most recent solo show Candy Man opens this Friday, August 5, 2017 at Fort Works Art in Fort Worth, Texas and is on view through September 9, 2017. The show is accompanied by Candy Castle, a group show curated by Ben, who lives and works in Phoenix, Arizona.

OtherPeoplesPixels: The title of your solo show Candy Man makes me think of the term eye candy. This description was often used in a dismissive way in my own grad school critiques. Have you encountered this kind of attitude about color?

Ben Willis: I envision Candy Man as an immersive experience in both color and pattern. The challenge has and will be creating an exhibition that has something for everyone. A lot of what we learn and how we speak in graduate school is for such a secluded group, that the majority of your audience members are lost before they begin.

When I was working towards my MFA I painted portraits of the artists who shaped my experience. Early on I kept hearing “you need to expand your color palette” or “find more ways to apply the paint.” I was encouraged to experiment but to also build towards a body of work that was cohesive and meaningful. I went on to use more complex paint mixtures by pushing color into a higher Chroma and found alternative paint application methods that didn’t use a brush. Ultimately my portraits had become more vibrant, but I was so invested in color, texture and mark that painting the figure seemed mundane.

PPAP, 2016. Acrylic, Glitter, Resin on Panel. 18" x 12"

OPP: What would you say to these haters? What don’t they get about color?

BW: I would educate them on the subjectivity of color. It has the ability to trigger emotional and symbolic responses, both good and bad. I’d assure them that it’s more than just eye candy at play and that there is intention behind that sparkly surface. Materials like glitter, flock and even spray paint have certainly been used with negative connotations in my experience, and I like to think of myself as an artist who is not afraid to break the rules if it enhances my message. The color palette references “sweet treats” and the overwhelming presence often displayed in a traditional candy store. In many ways, I want to create a visual experience that is both fun and satisfying yet leaves you hungry for more. I truly enjoy what I am doing right now and believe there is some healing power behind this body of work.

Little Juan, 2017

OPP: Big Juan (2016) and Little Juan (2017) evoke a classic quilt pattern known as Tumbling Blocks. Are you influenced by quilts? If not, can you talk about how you’ve come to work with repetitive squares and triangles?

BW: As far back as I can remember, my mother has always made quilts as well as crocheted various blankets and garments for the entire family. My father is very much a handy man and for all intents and purposes a wood worker. I hadn’t considered it much before, but would certainly be steering you in the wrong direction if I said my parents and up bringing haven’t played a role in my work.

What really tipped the scale in terms of pattern and abstraction relates once again back to portrait painting. My process involved visiting other artists to capture poses in their studio. It was a great challenge trying to replicate the artist’s physical presence in front of their work. I distinctly remember several paintings using impasto techniques, hard edges and geometric shapes. At the time, there was something about that style, using tape and thinking about what paint can do that felt fresh and exciting.

Original Woodie, 2016. Acrylic, Glitter, Resin on Panel. 18" x 12"

OPP: Tell us a bit about your process which involves layers of epoxy resin, glitter and dry pigments as well as acrylic and spray paint. Have you always worked in layers this way? 

BW: All of the panels I work on are handmade. I start with a variety of primers from traditional gesso, spray paint, acrylic paint, resin and collage. From there, it’s more of a classic way of drawing or working general to specific. A loose pattern is sketched on top of the primer followed by resin often mixed with a combination of flakes and pearls (glitter and dry pigments). I build up layers but feel like there is a lot more intuition and freedom involved allowing the composition to evolve on its own.

It’s rare for me not to use a variety of media on any piece and I have always worked in layers. For example, my oil paintings are never really just oil paintings. I typically build up value on canvas with compressed charcoal. The drawing is then sprayed with fixative and squeegeed with amber shellac. From there I use a scumbling technique to build up layers of oil paint as I progressively work towards finer detail.

#groundrules, 2016. Installation at Rhetorical Galleries. Photo credit: Airi Katsuta

OPP: What were the ground rules in your 2016 show #groundrules at Rhetorical Galleries? Did the hashtag #groundrules work the way you’d hoped?

BW: I’ve been working full time as a preparator at Phoenix Art Museum for almost two years now. My job entails closely handling valuable historical and contemporary objects. I think a big portion of the idea for this show came from what I see on a day to day basis.

For #groundrules I wanted to create the same road blocks visitors are confronted with in a museum—don’t get to close or touch the art, no flash photography, no food, no drinks—but in a shipping container. I posted said rules both on social media and on a large didactic at the entrance of the space. I used the same censors and warnings we use at work and even recorded visitor interactions (they were warned). The only real change was that there was no security to stop occupants from acting out.

In my opinion, the entire process revealed rules that exist when it comes to interacting with art and that there is value in finding new outlets to allow your audience to connect with your work. I would say the hashtag was a success and provided new avenues for getting my ideas outside of Phoenix.

So Post Post Modern, 2016. Acrylic, Resin, Glitter on Panel. 18" x 12"

OPP: You’re in the process of curating a show called Candy Castle, featuring the work of Derick Smith, Christina West, Adam Hillman, Sean Augustine March, Sean Newport, Rachel Goodwin, Wheron, Kristina Drake and another of our own Featured Artists Dan Lam. How is the process an extension of your studio practice? What was your curatorial process like?
BW: The idea for this companion show to Candy Man was spawned during a conversation with Dan Lam a little over a year ago about Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas. I’m told it’s not out of the ordinary for artists showing at the Nasher to curate additional works on view during the run of their exhibition. The space at Fort Works Art is quite large and stunning. I knew it would be difficult to truly utilize it entirely on my own and felt I could expand my reach by getting more artists involved. 

From a curatorial stand point it has been about finding work that speaks to my senses. I was still thinking in terms of color, texture and repetition but also looking for artists who are currently pushing the conversation on materials and form. Eye Candy, as you put it earlier, is an underlying theme in both shows paying some homage to the Hasbro board game Candy Land. As the creator and curator, my aim is to provide a sense of adventure for all ages through concepts of desire, play, nostalgia and maybe just a tiny bit of death.

The experience thus far has certainly provided a new set of obstacles and amazing opportunities for collaboration. There certainly is and will continue to be a lot of takeaways that will benefit my practice moving forward. I am grateful to everyone involved for the opportunity and support.

To see more of Ben's work, please visit benwillisart.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (2013), Heaven Gallery (2014), the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (2014) and Witness, an evolving, durational installation at The Stolbun Collection (Chicago 2017), that could only be viewed via a live broadcast through a Nestcam. Now that the installation is complete, you can watch it via time lapse. Her upcoming solo show Sacred Secular open on August 11, 2017 at Indianapolis Art Center.