Ben La Rocco, Constellation (2008), oil on linen, 40 7/8″ x 24 1/4″
During the blogpix panel discussion at Denise Bibro on Sat., March 7, 2009, I felt like I didn’t speak enough about Ben La Rocco’s work since the topic focused on blogging and art. So I asked Ben La Rocco, the artist I chose for the show, to speak to me about some of the ideas behind his work so that I could give it the attention it deserves.
I already explained one of the key reasons I chose Ben for the blogpix show (his is the type of artist often overlooked in the art blogosphere, more here), but I also chose him because I enjoy his paintings and drawings which have a quiet quality that require time to unravel their secrets. While his smaller works in oil have the feeling of sketches, his larger paintings are more complex and layered.
The following is an edited version of our email conversation about his works on display at blogpix and his thoughts on art in general.
Btw, the blogpix show closes this Saturday, March 28, so see it before it goes.
Hrag Vartanian: I’ve been thinking a lot about why you chose to riff off of Marcel Duchamp in your painting “Constellation” and its related drawing? Is Duchamp referenced in any of the other work?
Ben La Rocco: It was Duchamp’s film, Anemic Cinema (video), that got me interested in his imagery for my drawings. The large drawing at Platform, “Grains of Beauty,” the title for which comes from the film, is one of these.
I’ve always loved the contradictions implied by Duchamp’s art and his statements about art. He always insisted that his work should not be seen as aesthetic: that it wasn’t beautiful. But I find that it is. I like his willful obscurantism. Anemic Cinema involves a series of spirals: abstract designs and sentences mirroring each other. I want to see what will happen if I can get the feeling of the film’s spirals into my drawings.
“Constellation” is a little more incidental. It does come from a spiral composition, but I went off somewhere else with it.
Something I liked about this series is that you are transforming film into paintings and drawings. There’s an irony there since you are rendering the avant garde aesthetic of Duchamp into a more traditional medium. What role does your “translation” play?
I don’t like the categories used today to talk about art. I think that talking about art is talking about pretty heavy stuff: thought, feeling, life, death, decisions about ourselves and how we choose to exist as individuals in a community. Instead of dealing with the juicy stuff, conversations about art devolve into whether something is abstract, representational, folksy, kitchy, advanced, retrograde, dated, etc. In fact, I think all of this is beside the point.
I also think that for artists, everything is fodder for their work.
So in essence my affinity for Duchamp is born of love for his art. I saw his film and recognized myself and my beliefs in it. Duchamp staunchly insisted that art must (if it possibly could) exist outside of commercial demand. For him, that meant art had to be a pure product of his mind and had to appeal intensely to the minds of others (“I want my art to grip the mind the way the penis is gripped by the vagina”). I agree strongly with Duchamp about art’s relationship to the market and I admire his commitment to that position. But I feel this commitment can be expressed in multiple ways. Attempting to distill part of Anemic Cinema into drawings, a process of which Duchamp would doubtless have disapproved, is a way of saying that different kinds of art can exert the same resistance to corrosive influence as Duchamp’s esoterica. This is all about feeling and thought for the particularity of Duchamp’s art. It is not about the relationship of one category to another, i.e., avant-garde art to traditional art.
Do you remember when did you first saw works by Duchamp? How has your reaction to his work changed over the years?
That is a very good question and hard to answer. I think my association with Duchamp began gradually and built momentum over the years. In truth, he does not offer that much to look at. When I finally got down to the Philadelphia Museum to see their collection of his work (the largest anywhere I think) there was barely anything there. He didn’t make much work and what he did make is as far from eye-candy as you can get.
So my awareness of him probably started with a name in an art history book. Then I became fascinated with his particular, contrarian take on aesthetics (R.Mutt, etc.). I read biographies on him and was struck by the way his private life seemed to mirror his restraint as an artist. At one point he gave up art altogether and took up chess instead. This went on for years. He was a very good chess player. He was an aesthete: he owned virtually nothing; he was very much alone without appearing to be lonely; he lived by a strict code but he was not pedantic about it. His personality was anything but flashy and yet he went on to have this enormous impact on the course of art history. Finally I began to experience this very rarefied beauty in his work (again, I know he would have scoffed at it, but I can’t help it). So, in the case of Duchamp and me, what began as an intellectual fascination became a very personal affection.
Ben La Rocco, Void (2008), oil on canvas, 28 3/4″ x 24 1/4″
I want to talk about your painting Void, its a work I’m rather fond of. Is that informed by your explorations of Anemic Cinema or does that emerge from something else entirely?
Lately, I’ve been using drawing to explore spiral structures. Whether it’s a quick sketch or a more developed work, this is what drawing is about for me: training the hand and exploring ideas. Painting makes greater demands as a medium. It has tremendous range in terms of the surfaces and textures it can produce and I don’t like to limit that. I guess you could say that all my drawing informs my painting because I take what I’ve learned from drawing into painting. Painting then becomes a meeting point between my mind (as it informs my hand and is in turn informed by the hand in drawing) and my body. The process of moving paint around is extremely physical, I find. If I try to control that too much my paintings go dead. And I believe in letting go. So I guess I could say that the ends of drawing are different from those of painting for me and that painting has a lot to do with letting chaos and feeling in to check the mind’s custodial tendencies. Void is a pretty physical painting and I like that. It’s a painting that helps point me in the direction of where to go next. The painting is about a feeling of emptiness occupying space. It is about a sense of absence fierce enough to become physical.
What have you been reading recently? I get a sense that there is a theoretically aspect to your work that isn’t obvious at first.
I don’t like the word theoretical. I’m sorry for all of these “don’t likes.” I am a rather critical person and so I try to point the criticism at ideas rather than people. The reason I don’t like the word theoretical is because of its baggage. I associate it with the Structuralist thought that came out of literary theory in the 80’s and began to influence a lot of visual artists. Out of that seemed to come this notion, still oozing about in many grad programs, that an artist’s work had to have theoretical underpinnings to justify its existence. I submit that this is not the case. In my opinion art happens like this: unconscious desires and urges floating about in the seas of our minds and bodies occasionally surface and smack into our conscious selves. In the case of an artist this results in an uncontrollable need to make something physical and presto: art. So if “theoretical aspect” refers to a system of ideas whereby I create artworks, I’d have to say no, I don’t work that way. Art is practical, i.e., having to do with every-day things. It is not theoretical, i.e., having to do with principles and explanations. There is too big an element of the unknown in art as I understand it.
If, however, you mean theory in the general, speculative sense, as in my thinking about my paintings and conceptualizing what they might have to do with me, with each other and with a general statement I am trying to make to viewers, then yes, I could say that my paintings do have a theoretical dimension. I am reading David Foster Wallace’s essays now and just finished books by John Yau and Lionel Trilling, also essays. Also Borges. So it looks like essays for me now. I read a good bit of poetry too. I am fascinated by the connection of language to painting, although I do not consider my paintings to be literary, linguistic or even very easy to describe. Maybe this is why I’m fascinated by the connection. I think that each decision one makes in a painting carries propositional weight and can be “read” in a sense akin to how one reads a text.
The problem comes (and this is where I part ways with Structuralist thought in any form) in then reducing any and all elements of a painting to their roles as signifiers and treating a painting as a text only. The whole of a painting is greater than the sum of its parts and if I use a brush stroke to express a feeling I am not doing so because I understand that there is an equation between a certain type of brush stroke and a certain feeling. I am using a particular brush stroke because, on some deep, very hard to specify level of myself I believe there is some connection between the way my body moves and the way I feel so that this particular brush stroke’s propositional weight might, if I am fully present in the making of it, convey that feeling. Everything I read (just like everything I do) feeds into me and through me (as everyone’s experience fosters their presentation of themselves) and contributes to the type of brush stroke I make.
I remember you wrote something intriguing for a show you curated at the Janet Kurnatowski Gallery last spring: “There is a point in visual art in which speech fails to help us explain what we see. It is the inherent nature of most criticism and much historical writing to ignore this.” Now that you mention Yau, I couldn’t help but think about John Yau’s book The Passionate Spectator, where he argues that art historian critics (Rosalind Kraus, Benjamin Buchloh, etc.) supplanted the poet critics (Frank O’Hara, John Ashbury, etc.) and that is part of the problem with art criticism in the last few decades. I see similarities in your ideas–perhaps I’m mistaken–but is the poetic sensibility and recognizing the failures of language a crucial way to understand and write about art?
Yes. I would argue that it is. For one thing, it keeps you humble. If we acknowledge up front that the tools at our disposal to analyze and understand art have their limitations, then this changes the nature of our inquiry. We go from being scientists looking for and thinking we find verifiable (and thus categorical) truths and instead become explorers for whom the journey is the point. This effects our language and the way we conceive of our audience. If we are explorers, there is no need to be pedantic. Everyone is a fellow explorer. Poetry has a lot to do with this. Poetry, like art, is intended to be inclusive. Writing on the subject or art is too often exclusive.
I think that this approach is also more respectful of the artist. The critic thereby acknowledges that in the artist’s experience is present at least one element to which the critic, as a different human being with different priorities/preferences/prejudices, is a stranger and must approach with deference.
Ben La Rocco, Where Airplanes Land (2009), oil on linen, 12″ x 12″
You seem to allot the critic a secondary role, one that is in deference to the artist. Couldn’t you argue that the critic is as important as the artist in creating the art moment and experience? I’m thinking of Felix Feneon and the Post-Impressionists, Apollinaire and the Cubists & most obviously Greenberg & Rosenberg and the Ab-Exers.
Well, I think it depends what we’re talking about. If we are talking about how a critic might approach a work of art, then yes, I would suggest that there should be some deference involved. I don’t think it is a critic’s job to build theories and then fit artwork into those theories. Some critics do this and that is there prerogative. I simply do not believe (for the most part) in a prescriptive attitude toward life or art. I think that, particularly if we are going to express our opinion in print, we ought to bear in mind perspectives exterior to and not at all inferior to our own.
If we are talking about how art history gets made and how our current moment in art gets defined, then yes, critics (and everyone for that matter) ought to express themselves as to what they believe is happening. Critics are, ideally, the best educated and informed of observers and I am certainly not one who believes that it is only the words of the artist that ought to be considered in trying to understand what an artwork means.
As a painter you shy away from publicizing your work, why?
Do I? How so?
Perhaps that’s an inaccurate perception on my part. But I didn’t know you were a painter until years after I met you.
Well, perhaps publicity is not my strong suit. I never did put a premium on it.
I think things rise to the surface with time. I like to think about long spans of time. If the art I make has worth, it will eventually be recognized.
I’m not totally apathetic. I think of making connections to people individually as an important part of getting my work known. I think it’s one thing to have a press machine. It’s another to have an audience. I’d rather have an audience.