BENJAMIN HERNDON

 

To begin, could you tell me a little about yourself and your background?

I’ve been living and working in Providence, Rhode Island since I came here for graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design in 2014, and I foresee staying here for a good while. Studio space is relatively inexpensive here, and since I’m happiest when I’m working, I’ve chosen to prioritize that. I lived in New York City for about 5 years before moving to Providence. Being in New York was a very important part of my education as an artist, and still is whenever I visit. I grew up in Northern California, and spent some formative early-adult years in Portland, Oregon.. 

Describe your journey to becoming an artist. Has it been easy? Natural? What has been difficult?

I turned to making art out of desperation, to be honest, during a period of depression and significant personal change when I was in my early twenties, about ten years ago. I made my first painting when I was 23. I had been studying philosophy and pre-medicine in college before taking a leave of absence; I found solace in art, and essentially wound up reading a lot of art history and developing a portfolio with which I applied to art school. Looking back, very little of what I made when I started out was any good, but all of it was important to me in terms of research. Moving to NYC from rural Northern California challenged me in many ways; my work went through several major changes, and I learned so much — from my teachers at the School of Visual Arts, from the artists I worked for as an assistant, from seeing countless shows at galleries and museums, and from working at the late and legendary New York Central Art Supply. Living in New York was also very hard for me, though; I’m a fairly private person who appreciates quiet, and I had a difficult time finding fulfillment with the daily grind of commuting, working, making work, etc., that I ended up quite grumpy and not liking myself very much. I needed change, and graduate school forced it. Moving to a smaller city was good for my state of mind, and I found the community at RISD to be very supportive; I essentially treated my graduate program as a chance to experiment for two years, with hopes of making better work by the end of it. My work went through significant changes at RISD, shifting from photo-based prints to embracing drawing, with all kinds of material experimentation along the way.

How would you describe your work to someone?

My paintings appear quite dark, but they are just as much about light. The tonal vocabulary of my paintings is inherently reductive, which can be read as minimalistic and monochromatic, but it is not Minimalist, nor are they monochromes. My work always features a disruption of formal perfection: never do shapes perfectly align, I avoid symmetry, and when there is repetition it always includes evolution. I see this as critical for the work to function properly.

What is important for viewers to note when viewing your work?

When people see my paintings in person, I’m inevitably asked some version of “what am I looking at?” I think the graphite surface has a certain familiarity but is also carries an enigmatic quality, which I count as a good thing. The paintings, while dimensionally flat, are inherently sculptural: movement of the viewer’s body and seeing the work in space is essential. To experience the work is a uniquely physical matter, which makes this online exhibition very interesting to me: the works here are no longer objects, only images.

What is your process like? How important is process in understanding your work?

I make all my paint from scratch, essentially a gelatin emulsion pigmented with graphite. My most recent work I’ve been finishing with graphite emulsified in alkyd, and selectively polishing. The ground is also suitable for silverpoint, which I either apply with a traditional “point,” or with a small plate of silver. For me the process is simultaneously not at all important and all-important: the process serves as a means to achieve a surface that interests me, yet honing that process has been slowly leading me to new discoveries and guiding the direction of the work.

What does your work aim to say?

I’ve spent a number of years searching for a concise conceptual framework to explain my work, but recently I’ve been more open to the idea that the content of the work is its material, and the discrete formal decisions present or absent in the work. This is to say that I’m not out to illustrate certain concepts, but rather create situations wherein concepts, and perhaps even emotional responses, can emerge. Recently I’ve been exploring the balancing of bounded fields, creating abrupt edges to contain otherwise softened fields of tone. I think this serves to disrupt the illusion of space such a gradient can create, and simultaneously defines and gives weight to the forms in the painting.

 

Can you highlight some of your influences and discuss how they have impacted your work?

I’ve been lucky enough to cultivate a handful of relationships with artists whose work I find remarkable, including Auguste Garufi, Susan York, Richard Fleischner, and Jarrod Beck. It may sound cliche, but the first work of art I remember that emotionally moved me was a Rothko painting at SFMoMA. The expanse and soft focus of his color fields, especially his later paintings, are just so luscious and moving. Michelle Stuart’s large graphite drawings have had a similar impact. Robert Ryman’s work has always intensely resonated with me as well with its material frankness. And I’ve been genuinely giddy in front of nearly every one Anne Truitt’s paintings and sculptures that I’ve encountered thus far: her full embrace of subtlety is so inspiring to me; I think her work is so powerful and brave.

 

Where do you find inspiration?

Four years ago I went to Japan to study papermaking, and I was so inspired by the elegance and economy of traditional Japanese architecture and craft; I still find myself thinking about the temples and domestic architecture I encountered there. In general I find it inspiring when I see elements of architecture, craft, and art where it’s clear that intentioned, focused thought was put into the making. I find nature, where the opposite is true, equally inspiring. And good music is a daily source of inspiration.

 

In your experience, what is the best thing about being an artist? What is the hardest thing about being an artist?

Being introverted, getting to spend time alone in my studio experimenting, thinking, and making is the greatest thing ever. However, this introversion makes it a difficult task to do all the socializing necessary to promote what happens in the studio. It’s also frighteningly easy for me to doubt everything that I’m doing, and at the same time the doubt is a good motivator to not get stuck repeating myself (for too long) when I hit on something that works.

What piece of advice would you give to a young artist?

Don’t be afraid of abandoning a project — your studio time is precious, and if you can tell early on that something is beyond saving, it’s better to shift your focus.

 
Adam Reid Fox