Excess and Extraness: Talking subversive humour and macho bodies with Ana Benaroya

“What are you looking at!” the Amazonian powerhouse women in Ana Benaroya’s paintings seem to shout at you. And it’s not a question, but a statement. These musclewomen brook no nonsense. They’re fierce and self-assured and dominate the picture space and beyond. Their bodies bulge grotesquely, refuse to be contained, defined, orderly and “sexy”. Theirs is a sensuality on their own terms; a slap in the face to the male gaze.

In Origin of the World, Ana’s revisioning of Gustave Courbet’s famous painting of the same name, the female figure is no longer faceless and passively reclining away from the viewer. She has stood up and towers directly over the viewer, a coy smile visible on her face. Like the original, her genitals dominate the picture, but they are mysterious and enveloping. Courbet’s painting shocked, and also tantalised, viewers with its realism. Ana’s version wrestles the power away from the male gaze of the historic art canon and refocuses it through a female lens.

This radical power play is achieved in part through just that – play. Ana is keenly aware of the subversive power of humour, which ripples through her work like an electric current. The hyperbolic figures that romp through her art demand space and flaunt their unruly, macho forms. Their monstrous bodies are a parody and a middle finger to mainstream ‘normal’. In their excess and extraness, they’re nobodies’ body but their own.

AMM: Hi Ana! Let’s start with bodies as the physical is a central part of your art. When did you start drawing and painting the human form and what prompted this?

AB: I started drawing the human form when I was a little kid. I was watching tons of cartoons and was reading comics and became immediately fascinated with figuring out how to draw all the muscles in the body accurately. I would do mostly copies, copying from comics’ pages and also from anatomy books, and photographs of athletes. I think many kids when they start drawing have this desire to achieve realism of some sort…and there was part of that goal for me. But I also think I sensed unconsciously as a little girl that women weren’t as valued in society and for this reason became obsessed with drawing the male figure. Drawing men somehow gave me access to their power…and I became addicted.

AMM: How has your hyper-exaggerated graphic figurative style evolved and developed over the years? What have been some of the things that have influenced you?

AB: Well, it started where I mentioned above, with the superhero-esque male body. I didn’t realize it at the time, but muscles are a form of distortion, exaggeration, even decoration of the body. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out how to do the same with the female form. I think a big part of this was that society allows many more flaws or unique characteristics to the male figure and face while still considering it attractive. The definition of female beauty has remained rather narrow (though, yes, things are changing). So where could I find room for the distortion in the female form? It was a puzzle I didn’t figure out till much later – and that involved dissolving the binary between the two…which is something I am still trying to understand and explore.

I have been heavily influenced by lots of commercial art, I think this is where my visual language originated. From comics, to concert posters, to hand-lettering, to advertisements. Later on I started looking more intently at the work of other artists in the fine art world…such as Robert Colescott, Carroll Dunham, Dana Schutz, Nicole Eisenmann, Tom of Finland, Matisse, Picasso…the list could really go on and on.

AMM: Your paintings are really vivid. How do you use colour in your work?

AB: The first time I started thinking seriously about color was when I was designing concert posters in my undergraduate years. I did a lot of screen-printing and therefore thought in terms of limited color. This really got me thinking more intentionally about each color I used and how it allowed the others to sing. Still to this day I am drawn to those bright commercial graphic colors used in many posters – and I think I bring some of that over into my paintings. Obviously, painting is a different medium and therefore I had to change how I thought about color in some way. My goal with the color in my paintings is to somehow maintain that balance between graphic and painterly, between line, flat color, and modelled color. Generally color is something I don’t plan ahead – I work and react to the colors that are on the canvas and build layers in this way.

AMM: Violence and humour seem to dance around and with each other in your work. Can you tell us more about this?

AB: Yes, I would say violence, sexuality, desire, and humor all play with each other in my paintings. As a person I’ve always found humor to be a good way to deal with difficult issues, whether personal or societal. It makes life bearable and it’s a way to connect with other people and relate to their problems. Ideally I would like my paintings to be able to walk the tightrope between being funny and serious. Can I depict bodies engaged in violent or sexual behaviour and still engage the viewer in a way that doesn’t turn their heads in disgust? I think humor plays a big role in that, it humanizes my figures. I also think the humor can be in how I paint it, not just in the subject matter itself.

We live in a world that is filled with violence and sex and desire. Yet most of the time we just supress and ignore these things and live out our lives in the world of the mundane. I would like my paintings to live in this dark underbelly that we all pretend doesn’t exist.

AMM: How does the power dynamic and politics shift for you when painting male or female figures?

AB: Recently I’ve been focusing almost exclusively on the female form, kind of to make up for lost time. Until about a year or two ago I nearly exclusively drew the male form. My idea with depicting men was to sexualize their bodies in a way that I think has been done to women for centuries. I took sick pleasure in this. I was the puppeteer and these men were my little puppets. Eventually I realized though…it was kind of fruitless. The female gaze doesn’t really exist yet. We are all conditioned to see the world through the male gaze, regardless of gender or sexuality. I realized if I wanted to understand what the female gaze might look like, I had to focus on my own experience as a gay woman and deal with that. It was something I had been avoiding honestly for the longest time. So with my new paintings and when I depict women, I am taking a more personal viewpoint (mine) rather than a societal one.

AMM: From a conceptual level, in what ways are the bodies in your art subversive?

AB: I think they are subversive because they don’t neatly fit into neatly prescribed categories. The women I paint now are powerful yet sensitive and vulnerable. Their bodies are both muscular and strong and voluptuous and sexy. They are living in a state of no regret, I am trying to present them as their most honest and raw state. I also think they are subversive because they exist within the medium of painting. These bodies have not yet been seen or allowed in the realm of painting and its history – so their introduction in itself is subversive.

AMM: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that while your art is loud, you are a quiet person. What have you learned, gained or discovered about yourself through making art?

AB: I think through making art I’ve been allowed to have a very rich interior life that luckily has been able to spill out into my paintings. I think as any artist knows, making art involves a lot of time alone with yourself, which I think is always a good thing when it comes to better understanding how your mind works. Through my work I’ve learned a lot about how I repress a lot of things. Whenever I’m repressing an emotion in my real life, the first sign of it shows in my work. I think I’m able to deal with things first in my paintings and then in my real life. Whether that’s healthy or not, who’s to say. I just think I’m lucky to have this as an outlet because I can’t imagine going through life without it.

AMM: In your recent series of work music featured as symbolic of unfiltered creative and emotive expression. What ideas and motifs are you currently exploring in your work?

AB: I’m still working with music, but it’s evolving slightly as I work on paintings for my next show. My next paintings are going to explore women engaged in the creative act of sculpting and painting itself, along with the art of conversation, telling secrets, whispering, and domestic spaces. Shadows are also something I’m interested in playing with – giving them a life of their own.

AMM: Alongside your art, you’ve also published a few graphic books. How did these opportunities come about and what has been your experience working in this different format?

AB: I published two books through Thames & Hudson several years back – both very different sorts of books. For these, I pitched the ideas to them and they were interested so the conversation began!

And I also self-published several zines – as well as worked with small publishers on a few of them. The zines relate back to my days as an illustrator. I’ve always been drawn to print and also to narrative – and for these reasons I got a lot of pleasure out of creating small stories in this format. To me, a zine is casual, cheap, intimate. It doesn’t have the same pressure as a painting might have. It also allowed me to bring writing into my work, which I have yet to find a way to do in my paintings (aside from the titles). I think this format is definitely one of the light-hearted aspects of my practice and I can see creating one every couple years or so.

AMM: What are you watching, reading, listening to right now?

AB: Well, considering we’re all in quarantine now, I’ve been listening to a lot more music and watching a lot more TV than I usually do! Don’t get me wrong, I’m always hungry for new music…but now I’ve been extra ravenous haha. I really loved Portrait of a Lady on Fire – I watched it twice and can’t stop thinking about it. Here are a few songs I have been listening to on repeat recently:

Peaceful Easy Feeling – The Eagles
Hounds of Love – Kate Bush

In A Broken Dream – Python Lee Jackson & Rod Stewart
Bloom – j^p^n
Rhythm of The Night – DeBarge

AMM: You were recently on residency in Italy. What was that experience like? How did it influence and affect your work?

AB: It was my first artist residency and the first time I made paintings outside my studio – so that was an interesting adjustment! The experience itself was magical, I loved Brescia, the city that Palazzo Monti was in – it was the perfect size for a residency. Also, I loved all my fellow residents, so that obviously made the experience that much better.

It’s hard to say how it affected my work just yet, it was still relatively recent. But I think just taking me out of my regular life and routine in itself was refreshing and always gives me more perspective. Being out of the United States too was nice in the sense that I could draw from the energy of a different culture.

AMM: Do you have any new projects or exhibitions coming up? What’s next for you?

AB: I have a solo show coming up in November with Ross + Kramer Gallery in NYC. That’s the big thing on the horizon. I’m also working on two different sculptural projects – one bronze and one glass. I’m very excited for both!

Read more about the artist: www.anabenaroya.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.