Swimmers, 2016. Acrylic on Paper
Painter BENJAMIN COOK's abstract, mostly colorful works live as physical objects and as images on the Internet. . . and he values both equally. His work is driven by a fascination with the structures, rules and algorithms
that guide both our online and offline lives. Ben earned his BFA at the
University of Louisville in 2012 and just completed his MFA at
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the Spring of 2017. He is
represented by Zg Gallery in Chicago, where he had a solo exhibition
titled How Do I Know You in 2016. Other solo shows include Paintings for the Internet at Rochester Museum of Fine Arts in New Hampshire and Image Construction at Project 1612 in Peoria, Illinois. He is a founding member and Co-Director of Say Uncle Project Space,
an experimental residency and nomadic exhibition program located in
Central Illinois. Ben lives and works in Champaign Urbana, Illinois.
do you position yourself in relation to the history of abstraction in
Painting? What part of the discourse are you most interested in? What
are you adding to the conversation with your work?
Benjamin Cook: I tend to jump back and forth between looking at historical movements in painting and contemporary works by artists on social media. I usually stray away from positioning myself within the typical art historical cannon because I feel it sets up a hierarchy that favors a certain vein of artists. I prefer to look at “nameless” artists making work today with the same level of seriousness that I look at artists in the Washington color school, abstract minimalism, early digital art, etc. I have noticed that artists in the early digital movement often pulled protocols and strategies from abstract artists that came before them, and I see what I do now as the next step in that process. I am pulling from the digital world and making it physical again.
Psychosis in Pink, 2015. Acrylic, Spray Paint, Glitter Paint on Paper
OPP: What influences your work outside of fine art?
BC: I am really interested in social media and the Internet in general. As spaces of analog and digital creep closer and closer together, the structures and rules that guide them tend to affect one another. My research into the reverse flow of information (from digital to analog) propels me to ask questions about how and where we allow these systems to have control over our lives, the decisions we make and our taste. We saw in the last election, the power that platforms like Facebook can have over our lives. I am largely influenced by those powers.
OPP: Tell us about Paintings for the Internet (2014). Are these painted as a gift for the internet as an entity—as in poetic odes—or are they somehow about the internet?
BC: That series started off as a sort of experiment. I was interested in seeing where I could move images around through figuring out what blogs were influenced by other blogs, what Instagram users followed other users, things like that. I was attempting to deconstruct the algorithm and reveal the structures that played a role in what I was seeing.
Untitled 071315, 2015. Acrylic on Paper
OPP: So, are the paintings then, not the point, but rather a pretense to figure out influence and viewing trends?
BC: It might have started off with that question of trying to figure out the system and its biases, but the physical paintings were always important, too. I tend to see very little distinction between the physical and digital versions of the paintings. Sure, there are things that can only be seen by standing in front of the painting on a wall, but there also things that can only be experienced through a digital interaction. The methods and processes in which the paintings are created come from protocols of both the digital and analog world, and I see the works as a sort of merged experience. You can see this sort of thing happening all over the place. In pop culture, the fidget spinner, a toy that spins in your hand using ball bearings, also exists in countless forms as a smartphone app. Modern finance is so tangled in the digital that being physically closer to the massive computers that buy and sell stocks in fractions of a second can give a company an advantage. In education, supercomputers are able to let humans reach beyond the limits of the human mind to calculate immense equations and sort through incredible amounts of data, creating a system in which the literal facts about the world we know are structured through a digital lens. To claim that the paintings are just a means of getting at the “trend” or “algorithm” would significantly diminish the importance of the analog within the digital.
Untitled painting for the Internet, 2014. Acrylic on Paper
OPP: And what did you figure out about the trends in the process?
BC: One of the patterns that became apparent through this project was a constant visibility by a certain group of artists. Through the structure of the algorithms, many different publications, blogs, galleries, and institutions that all are functioning under the pretense that their curatorial selections are based upon the judgment of an actual human. Through the consistency of this small group of artists being shown in these spaces and publications, it became apparent that the algorithms are playing a role in curation, helping to decide who “gets in” and who is “left out” though visibility. This all may seem like not that big of a deal, but when you think about the people writing the code, they’re not writing it while thinking about the art world. They’re thinking about engagement in general. This sets up a system that has the potential to favor specific groups of artists and disenfranchise others. The art world already has plenty of problems with excluding the voices of women and people of color, and if the algorithms are not considering that (and they aren’t), it only further exacerbates the problems.
Untitled painting for the Internet, 2014. Acrylic on Paper
OPP: How do you think about the paintings as paintings?
BC: I love them! I have always been a painter at heart. As I said before, I see very little separation between the digital and the analog. This allows me to both work with paint, in all of its physical viscerality, while still asking questions about my place within a digital world. There is always a new way to push paint around, and I always get excited about that process of discovery.
OPP: You have a strong tendency toward multicolored-ness. What does it mean to you to balance colors by using so many?
BC: Color theory has always been an interest of mine. Each color on a painting is individually mixed and unique. I use that process to further test my boundaries of color knowledge. Placing them all in a grid or right next to each other becomes a sort of game for me. It is an attempt to replicate randomness, which is impossible. I pull a lot of my knowledge of color from the impressionists. I think about combinations of cool, warm, light, dark, and balance colors of the same value but a different hue right next to one another.
Arch, 2015. Graphite on Paper
OPP: In relation to your other work, I read your graphite
works as having had the color drained from them. Were you excited or
bored by working in grey tones?
BC: The graphite works
come in moments of respite. When I find that I am leaning to heavily on
the color to make a painting work, It helps for me to eliminate it all
together. I can think about the composition and structure in greater
depth without any distractions.
Static Structure 3, 2016. Acrylic, Resin on Basketball Net
OPP: How do you think about Static Structures
(2016), a series of paintings on deconstructed basketball nets? How is
working on the net different or the same as working on canvas or paper?
BC: They each have the ability to utilize structures from digital spaces in the same way. For me, the basketball nets came from how I interact with different social media platforms through the limitations and controls set up by the algorithms and code that structure them. The basketball nets acted as a given set of parameters that I had to work within to manipulate into something new. The element of gravity, through the drips of poured resin, invited an aspect of larger analog controls to the undulating net and froze it in a new form. From that new structure, I find and pull patterns out of the grid. The process of working within the structure to create my own image was largely metaphoric of the task of defining yourself through a digital platform. What images show my best side? What short bio, best promotes how I see myself? These types of questions that seem mostly open ended are actually largely confined to the set of parameters that each platform allows. The images created in the nets of patterned bands of color were defined in a similar fashion, a decision all my own, but severely limited in its possibilities.
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 will open in August 2017 at Indianapolis Art Center.