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Bringing Controversy to Convention: Ben Frost

The entrance of the building leading up to Worlds End studio, the artspace where Ben Frost lives and creates, is the perfect setting for a horror movie. The multiple coats of paint that cover the walls in varying shapes and tags create a labyrinth of statements that compete for your attention, and in turn create a labyrinth of space – every direction seems to run into the starting point. Like Ben’s work, it is a rejection of the very notion of standard living, and you can almost feel it retaliating against convention. Indeed, Worlds End is a place where white walls can experience the sweet taste of creative afterlife.

It may sound a bit surprising, then, that an artist such as Ben Frost is now being represented by a space defined by its white walls. The Redfern-based Boutwell Draper Gallery has recently picked him up, and much to Sydney’s benefit, will be showcasing a solo show of his tonight. What this apparent acquisition means for the art world at large is a step in a refreshingly different direction, one where the terms ‘lowbrow’ and ‘highbrow’ might finally cease to exist and break the divide which they themselves define. Still, for an artist like Ben, I couldn’t help but wonder what his thoughts were on such a conventional venture?

“I have always had a chip on my soldier about being represented by a commercial gallery – these kind of spaces have looked down on my kind of art for so many years,” he says.
“Essentially, a gallery is a space to show my work. We haven’t defined our relationship yet, so we’ll see what happens… but I know I can’t do artist-run shows forever.”

Ben’s work is an idiosyncrasy in its own right, one that can be characterised as crude, grotesque and perhaps a little insane. By throwing red paint all over society’s commercial saturation, his work exceeds the art world and ventures into sociological commentary. Having heard about his antics – faking his own death and sending invitations to his ‘funeral’ among them – combined with his disturbing, albeit amusing, artwork, I had a feeling that the Ben in person would evoke a child with ADD. To the contrary, he is poised, articulate and reflects on his work with careful contemplation. He is not reminiscent of the brash slap in the face that he takes out in his work, but he is certainly as cynical as it would leave you to believe.

“I don’t provide any answers in my work – it is a very pessimistic vision of society’s downward spiral,” he says.

“I figure that the world is going to end anyway, so we may as well see the lighter side of the apocalypse.”

Although he is, by his own admission, ‘totally consumed with the world’s demise,’ he doesn’t dwell on it with tears in his eyes. Rather, he finds the whole obstacle hilariously funny. Words such as juxtaposition, subversion and pop surrealism are frequently used to describe his work, which he says he often creates to background conversations coming through his television.

“I am never watching, just listening, and in doing so the dialogue becomes a narrative – I start seeing how it’s all working, how entertainment and advertising are all really the same thing,” he says.
“We are coming out of the Bush era and this culture which has been all about government conspiracy and lies.
“There is certainly something more sinister going on behind it all, and when you can mentally prove it and find clues about it, it’s actually quite satisfying.”

So does he claim to have escaped the brainwashing vortex that global advancement has sucked the rest of us into?

“I often get into this dialogue about how I should be living my life if I’m talking about mass-consumerism,” he says.
“It’s the paradox of living in western society – I could be really extreme and not watch TV or go to McDonalds, but we are a product of our environment and we are all privy to contradiction and hypocrisy.”

In saying that, Ben does do his part. He lives in high-density housing, aka the tangle of walls discussed previously. He doesn’t have a car and he buys food locally whenever possible. He does exhibitions for charity and he is very particular about the clients he works for. But then, he does own an Xbox and he enjoys going to the movies. It’s not exactly that he can’t live up to his cause, but he has had to redefine his place in it.

“Lately I’ve been thinking I’m not here to save world – I mean, how can you do that as an artist?” he says.

With a style of work that sends the same familiar signal to the brain as a traffic light, it is at first surprising to hear that Ben’s earliest memories of himself creating were of getting his father to do his art projects for him. That was in year 5, but he took the power of using other people and tools to make things with him. Further driving a blade across the very notion of traditional, he has two assistants who help him paint. He often isn’t aware of the meaning in his work until it’s finished, and it is the additions in the final stages that give it the powerful connotation it eventuates in. He describes his genre – if you could call it that – as a mashup of visual samplings. For his latest work, Lost in the Supermarket, Ben plays with both the literal and figurative notion of the title, forcing the viewer to confront the dizzying landscape of over-stimulation and choices which are never our own to begin with.

“In the obvious description, I think we’re often lost in the supermarket – trying to find milk in the dog food section, not being able to find where the toilet paper is because it’s been moved to another section, and so on,” he says.
“In the metaphorical sense, life is a supermarket, and we’re all lost and trying to find our way. If you boil it down, everyone’s got a sales pitch– we’re all walking, talking products.
“But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be quite interesting and exciting in some ways – it’s a love/hate attraction/repulsion. For instance, I hate Micky and Disney but they make up some of my favourite programs, and even in the supermarket – I love pushing the trolley.”

Once again, his work is bound to confront some who might prefer not to see their favourite pop icons get so out of control and pose in such…well, taboo ways. Throughout his career, he has been pushing buttons and seems to have buried himself deeper into the ground of the ‘offensive’ and ‘controversial’. So is it safe to say that Ben likes being in the eye of the storm? Yes, yes it is.

“I kind of have a bit of a confrontational lifestyle,” he says, as though he is pondering about it for the first time.
“In a lot of ways it’s about living life and not taking shit… to push out my own perspective even when people put it down. It goes with being an artist – people don’t consider a real job, so you have to fight for every little scrap.
“But I do enjoy it – lately I have been making my work as offensive as possible.”

While Ben has been on the local group show circuit since his establishment in the art world, this is his first solo exhibition in Sydney in three years. He has been pushing into the international scene to launch himself on a more global level, where, even despite the financial car wreck the world has found itself in, his work has received an incredible response. Still, with a studio, a dog and his business STUPID KRAP on the side, Sydney is definitely in his roots right now, and so being represented by a gallery may not be such a bad idea – as long as that means we get to see more of him.

Ben Frost

*All images are from Lost in the Supermarket. You can see more of them tonight at Boutwell Draper Gallery, starting from 6pm. The exhibition will be on until December 19.

words: Seema Duggal


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