NYFA – An Interview with Erik Benson

By: Suzan Sherman

I met with Erik Benson in his DUMBO studio this past summer, when he was a resident artist in the 2009 Marie Walsh Sharpe Space Program. Down the hall from NYFA’s offices, Benson’s studio offered sweeping views of the Brooklyn Bridge, the East River, and beyond it to the urban landscape often portrayed in his paintings. Benson and I sat together in front of one of his works-in-progress, a painting of a half-built house. Earlier in the day, he had rendered the small light brown flecks in its particle board walls. One of the hallmarks of Benson’s work is his application of acrylic paint, which he spreads in thin sheets on a palette to dry before cutting it into shapes. Literally building up the surface of the canvas bit by bit, Benson mirrors the labored, brick-by-brick construction of the buildings, playgrounds, and construction sites which are the subject matter of his work.

Suzan Sherman: I’ve never seen any houses in your work before. This looks like it could be out in the suburbs of New Jersey somewhere.

Erik Benson: I’ve actually done one other piece about the suburbs—a housing development in the Midwest. My parent built their house so that it looks like everyone else’s on their street, and I got interested in that idea of symmetry. No one wanted to have their own style—no one wanted to stick out. The painting is about uniformity, but I also tried to update it to reflect the recession and all of the foreclosures going on. I’m also attracted to building materials—I’m sort of deconstructing these buildings by showing the cheapness of how they’re made.

SS: I know your paintings are intended as a critique, but they always end up being so beautiful.

EB: I definitely get seduced by them too. It’s important to me that they look good. It’s just that this painting has so far to go. I have all these ideas about plant growth coming up  through these tractors, little speckles of debris throughout this piece. And there’s going to be a basketball hoop. I have a photo of a hoop that I took in Bed-Stuy about three weeks ago; it was a basketball hoop from the suburbs that you get for your driveway. Somebody took the hoop and tied it to a light post with a cord and wire. And it was incredible, it was so beautiful, and somehow it just needs to be in this painting.

SS: Do you make drawings ahead of time?

EB: Yeah, I do sketches. Just thumbnails to get a sense of the composition. And then I go from there. The photographs I take work as sketches as well. I walk around with a point-and-shoot camera, and if I see something that’s interesting I snap a picture of it. Like that painting [pointing to Sleepon the wall] is about gentrification. There are all these high-rise buildings that have gone up near Bushwick. It was an old, industrial neighborhood that’s now been built up with “beautiful” glass-box houses.

SS: You were born in Detroit, went to school in the Midwest and Providence, but the work you’re doing now is so New York. It feels like you’re totally, literally immersed in your subject matter.

EB: Yes, I am. But I don’t know if that’s such a good thing.

SS: Why?

: Perhaps it’s too specific, while at the same time it is speaking to my experience. But maybe it might be a little difficult to relate to if you don’t live here. I think someone from the Midwest will react totally different to my painting. It’s something I’ve really been thinking about a lot lately.

SS: New York is such a tourist attraction, so it’s very conscious of itself in a way that maybe, say, Minneapolis wouldn’t be. We’re inundated with images of New York on TV and in movies; it’d become romanticized—even the grit is romanticized. The colors that you use in your work, like in this painting—you’re not replicating natural light, are you?

EB: Trying to get the color of windows at night is such a specific thing. Those are actually the colors that I was trying to get. It took me two months. There’s a specific way to do it because it’s so translucent, and I think the tendency for most painters is to make something really opaque. I did the entire structure of the building in an off-white yellowish. And for all the windows I used translucent gels of acrylic paint, and peeled them off and kept building up the layers—layer after layer after layer.

SS: Like stained glass.

: Yeah, exactly. I was really happy with how it turned out. When you get an idea like that you just go for it, but then it always has to change. The painters I like the most are the ones who are able to not let their ideas remain fixed, and just keep letting whatever is happening in a painting happen.

My favorite artist is Robert Gober because he’s just so smart about how he does his work. There’s a sort of formula to it, but he breaks his own rules all the time too. I think that he listens to himself. When I talk to other painters about their work, much of the time it ends up feeling more like shop talk—you always end up involved in a conversation that’s like, ‘Oh, well they did this to do that,’ or, ‘It was done this way.’

In school I really loved Lari Pittman. I thought that his paintings were so technically virtuosic. I had no idea how he did it—the skill level of his craft was really impressive to me. But now I look at a lot of landscape painting—that’s what moves me right now. The 18th-century painter Caspar David Friedrich is probably my biggest influence in terms of what I’m working on now. And then there’s the Hudson River School—Frederick Church, Thomas Cole—their work is about landscape, but it’s also about the sublime, and I like that notion in a contemporary context.

SS: All of their landscape work is incredibly romanticized, but then when I look at your work I don’t think of it as being about social criticism per se either, at least not on the immediate surface.

EB: I think I romanticize some things a bit, but I think you have to. How could you not? Something like sneakers hanging from power lines. Just seeing that is romantic, even though what it means is not romantic at all.

SS: How long have you lived in New York?

: Since ’96. Then I went to grad school for two years, and afterward I came back.

: Because it seems like if you’d been born and raised here, maybe you wouldn’t be making paintings like this.

EB: Yeah, I think that’s probably true. I did a lecture a few weeks ago, and went back and looked at my work from undergrad. It was crazy, because the paintings that I was doing then are so different from what I’m doing now. But they had the rudimentary structure of what I’m doing today, maybe less successfully, but it was definitely there.

SS: I went to that lecture, and I was really taken by what you said about how you dreaded the idea of putting buildings into your paintings, and how you came at doing it sideways.

EB: In grad school everyone is fighting to have a theory and be really smart, and I was too—not through painting heroic architecture but by painting playgrounds and construction sites. I really liked that idea, but in reality I was really just preparing myself to paint buildings. And that’s good—it was a good way to move into it.

SS: It makes you feel like your decisions make sense.

EB: Definitely. And I think you grow in a spiral too, and you’re always coming back to where you used to be. But you’re able to see where you are with a different level of knowledge that you’ve attained by taking the path all the way around. Also, the funny thing about looking back at my work is seeing my strictness in wanting to be a flat painter—all my flat, shape-based language, and now I’m getting back into brush strokes. I see these paintings going in a really weird direction, and I feel good about it.

SS: When did you start cutting up the dried paint and laying the shapes directly onto the canvas?

: Grad school. I had to stop using oil paint in grad school because I had an allergic reaction to it—I just broke out in hives. The doctor in the hospital said that I probably had enough toxins in my body from oil paint that I should stop using it. I was totally devastated. The idea of using acrylic paint just made me nauseous. I was miserable. But what ended up happening was that I adapted my subject matter to the paint, because there’s such a plasticity to acrylic—I mean, it is plastic—and I found myself becoming attracted to things that were plastic, like orange traffic cones. And then I had these pieces of plastic on my studio floor, and I accidentally spilled paint on it and just let it dry one night. When I came back the next day, it was hard and I peeled it off. The dried acrylic was like Colorforms. And I really got into this idea of Colorforms—that you could move around these shapes. That was my idea for the structure of a painting that would be cool, and it just kept evolving. That was one accident that turned into a good idea.

SS: When you said before that you made this playground in an afternoon [pointing to the painting,The Commons], it seems to me that it would take a week to construct something so complex. You’re not using a stencil?

EB: I cut out the dried acrylic with an X-Acto knife, like the two strips that are here.

: It seems so delicate to me.

: It’s actually really malleable. It’s just plastic; you have to be careful not to let it fold onto itself. The bottom side has a little bit of tackiness to it, and that helps secure it.

SS: One thing that I was just thinking about when you were talking about Colorforms, and in looking at this painting [Sleep] where the windows just glow, is Lite-Brite, another childhood game. I especially loved using Lite-Brite without the stencils.

EB: Yes, you used the black sheets to make whatever you wanted. Now I won’t be able to think about anything else for the next five days.

SS: With all this talk of childhood, I was curious about the kinds of things that you liked to draw as a child.

: I used to have drawing books where I drew shapes step by step, and by the end of eight or nine pages I’d have a buffalo. My brother and I were really into that. We’d make these little drawings in color pencil, though mostly we used Magic Markers. We’d shop them around town and sell them to the neighbors for a quarter each.

SS: Did people buy them?

EB: Yes, and that’s what was so crazy about it. I remember coming back home with like ten bucks, and my mom asked, ‘Where did you get that?’ I think I started drawing just to decorate my walls a bit. I remember one Saturday afternoon I was really bored, and it was rainy out. I lived in a really small town in central Minnesota, and I started drawing superheroes on one piece of paper, and then I just kept going, and pretty soon I just drew every superhero I could think of. Pretty soon I had all these pages of superheroes in my room, and it was kind of this impulse to archive things. I remember it being important at the time. I went to an arts high school, and I wanted to learn to draw really well so I convinced my mom to give me $200 for figure drawing classes that met once a week every six or seven weeks. And we drew the same pose every time. I still have that drawing. It’s not very good. It changed so much over the course of several weeks, and I remember taking it home and my mom said, ‘I paid 200 dollars for this?’ But the class forced me to look at something closely. I still think about that a lot—that was a good learning experience.

SS: So when you were young, you obviously didn’t envision yourself as becoming an artist.

EB: I came from a very predictable Midwestern background. My parents both worked the same hours, and that’s what I thought I’d do. Not that art isn’t a job, but it was always looked upon as a hobby. You couldn’t have a career in that. And if you did have a career, you were sort of chastised or rebuffed. My dad sprayed crops for a fertilizer company and my mom was a secretary at that same company. I had a job bean-weeding in the summertime for $50 a day when I was 14, so I always just assumed I’d have a job, though I thought I’d go to medical school at one point. I thought I’d be a skateboarder for a little while, too. But even in grad school I never thought that this would actually work out in terms of my making a living. After grad school I came back to New York and got a job as an art handler. I still do art-handling, but a lot less than I used to. For a while I was doing it five days a week and that was just a nightmare. It’s almost impossible to have a career as an artist if you work full-time. I know so many people that try. I respect the effort, but at some point you just need to dig your heels in and say, I’m going to eat ramen noodles and make this work. And get good. And get good fast. And a lot of the time it doesn’t matter—it’s not about you being good; it’s about being lucky. Luck has a huge amount to do with it. I know lots of really good people that haven’t sold a painting. I’ve been really,
really fortunate.

Erik Benson makes paintings of urban landscapes informed by the Everyday. He received his M.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2001, and his B.F.A. from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1996. He attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2001, and was a recipient of a NYFA Fellowship in Painting in 2009, as well as a resident of the Marie Walsh Sharpe Space Program in the same year. He lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.