“Three-dimensional dioramic objects”: The many-layered paintings of Ben Jamie

In the works of London-based artist Ben Jamie, the abstract and the figurative are coextensive. The fluid forms expressed in his paintings teeter on the verge of becoming recognisable objects but are pulled back from the brink of reality by Ben’s intuitive process of distortion. As a result, the images attain an almost hallucinatory quality—scenes reflected back at the viewer in funhouse mirrors. Detached from any particular object, time, place or meaning, the compositional elements that make up Ben’s works embody a myriad of references and significations, from the things around him in his Hackney Wick studio space to philosophy and unnameable, elusive emotions. Ultimately, license is granted to the viewer to extract their own interpretations from the paintings and to glean significance from the images based on subjective experience. As such, Ben’s paintings incorporate and involve the viewer in creating meaning. The funhouse mirror that his work holds up is exactly that—a mirror.

In an introduction to Ben’s 2018 solo show, ‘Comfortably Dumb’, David Northedge writes that “The works talk to each other behind the painter’s back in a language he is unable to translate fluently, but one that he deciphers in snippets, mark by mark.” Northedge’s emphasis on a steady proliferation of marks highlights how the intentionality of Ben’s art lies not just in the work itself, but in the action of its making. His practice unfolds as a process of experimentation, reworking, distortion and layering. Ben therefore conceives of his work as reflexive, the final product always containing a multitude of previous iterations and evolutions. Never limiting himself to a single medium, Ben incorporates charcoal drawing, watercolour, oil paint, distemper, wax and oil stick. As in the chromatic compositions of post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, depth is achieved in Ben’s paintings via his manipulation of colour. Cool and warm tones, light and dark shades are employed as devices to either create harmony between forms or to imply conflict. Chromatic technique combined with draughtsmanship, the flat surfaces of Ben’s paintings attain an abundant three-dimensionality, as though several different visual perspectives have been concertinaed and superimposed within a single frame of vision.

Previously an artist in residence as part of the Turps open studio painting programme between 2014 and 2016, Ben was also the recipient of the 2016 John Moores Painting Prize. His work has been exhibited across the UK and internationally, and was recently shown as part of a group show on contemporary British painting at Space K in Gwacheon, South Korea. He speaks to us here about his current practice in London, his approach to making, and his life and interests beyond the studio.

AMM: Hello Ben, can you talk about your background and how it led you into the arts? When did you begin to realise you wanted a career as an artist? Was it always about painting?

BJ: Art was the only thing I ever wanted to do. I used to go to art clubs every Saturday, and drew through most of my lessons at school. I ended up leaving school and going to Art College instead of doing my A levels. I then went on to study photography for two years, before specialising in painting.

AMM: You live and work in London, how do you view the current art scene in the city?

BJ: I think the art scene in London is great at the moment and there are a lot of strong painting shows happening. There is a lot of appetite for the arts in London, and most exhibition openings I go to are packed. I also feel like I’m part of a really good peer group, all emerging in the last few years. All this in spite of the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find affordable places to work, as studios are being knocked down all over London to make way for apartment blocks.

AMM: Regarding your two years in the Turps Banana Painting Programme you commented that your practice changed beyond recognition. Please talk us through this sea change in your creative approach?

BJ: From the first day at Turps, I was encouraged to let everything about my work change and soaked up all the teaching that was available. The open studios environment quickly gets you out of your comfort zone, and encourages a healthy competition with the other painters on the course.

The Nothing, oil, distemper, wax and charcoal on canvas, 150 x 130 cm

AMM: How important is drawing in the construction of your work?

BJ: Drawing is extremely important to my practice, and is integral to the creation of the paintings. Most paintings begin with watercolour studies, which are then transposed onto the canvas, then manipulated as the work goes on. Because of the charcoal marks, my work has an almost cloisonnist style—flat forms separated with dark contours from the drawn elements. The paintings change a lot over time, and often two different sketches are used to make the work.

AMM: In ‘Comfortably Dumb’, your 2018 exhibition, we enjoyed the introductory text by David Northedge which provides an intriguing insight into a painter’s approach and process. How does it compare to your approach and process?

BJ: I didn’t want a traditional text for my show, so I commissioned David to produce a piece of writing. It felt like a window into my studio. It manages to convey the painter’s existence and anxiety, whilst being a fairly abstract, Ballardian text. He also wrote the text for my previous show at Castor Projects, Sense Data.

AMM: How would you describe the subject matter of your art and what feeds your inspiration?

BJ: The subject matter reflects the human condition, but in a somewhat abstracted form—life, tension, emotion, religion, conflict, aspiration, philosophy all mixed together with some humour thrown in. The paintings look fairly serious, but I am having a lot of fun making them.

Everything feeds my inspiration- I don’t have to look very hard for it, how that translates into my paintings is more of a mystery to me. I try to keep things open as much as possible, especially in the planning stage. I try to start paintings just using the right side of my brain, and finish them off with the more logical left side—at least that’s what I’d like to do.

AMM: In what ways do you think your life’s journey is exposed to the viewer through your paintings?

BJ: I feel someone else would have to answer that question—I imagine it is difficult not exposing my life’s journey, however hard I try to hide it.

AMM: What is the most important thing you would like the viewer to take from your art?

BJ: I would like the viewer to get lost in the paintings and feel able to project some of their personalities into them. Seeing them in the flesh is a very different experience than how they look when they’re reproduced. Every mark is intentional—either deliberately made or left. The paintings go on quite a journey whilst being produced, and I like to think of them as containing ‘time’ rather than just being flat images.

Go Gently Into The Earth, oil, distemper, wax and charcoal on canvas, 117 x 101.5 cm

AMM: What role does colour play in your art? Can you tell us more about your palette?

BJ: Colour is crucial in my paintings, it is possibly the most important thing for me. I do a lot of colour experiments within my initial sketches, and the whole atmosphere changes depending on what colours are used. My palette is a more ‘processed’, CYMK one than a more primary palette, maybe as a hangover from studying photography. I like to make my paintings quite harmonious, even though some of the colours are quite jarring. I treat colours as if they are in a particular position on the picture plane—warmer colours further forward, and cooler colours further back. I always think of my paintings as being three dimensional dioramic objects.

AMM: ‘Already Not Yet’ was your first exhibition in the US, showcasing a series of new canvases. Can you tell us a little about how you approached the selection of work and how you found the experience? Were there significant differences to exhibiting in the UK?

BJ: It was a great experience showing in New York, and Shrine is a fantastic gallery. I took a lot of work out there and we made the selection once I had arrived. The space was quite intimate, so we decided to let large paintings dominate the gallery, in an almost immersive way. There were no real differences to exhibiting in the UK, apart from the people coming to the show were more engaged in a philosophical sense rather than technical.

AMM: Very well done on being a winner in the 2016 John Moores Painting Prize. We loved your entry ‘Dissolver’. How important do you think competitions are in the current art scene?

BJ: I was lucky to have been selected as one of the five prize winners, and the show itself was great. The painting I showed was definitely the most simple, focussed work I had produced whilst at Turps. Although the experience was great, I am not sure I think all competitions are that important, and I feel that there are a few too many of them.

AMM: Congratulations on your recent group show ‘British Painting 2019’ held in Korea. Can you tell us more about your selection of work and the experience? What challenges did you face when developing the art works and how long did it take you to prepare? Great photo on Instagram as one of your canvases is lowered from a window! Scary moment!

BJ: The curator for Space K, Jang-Uk wanted large paintings, so I made the largest piece I could get out of my studio. I had to cut a hole in one of my walls, and then lower it down outside of the building. Most of my work was at Castor Projects, so I made completely new work and they selected from those. It ended up being around 6 months work to make paintings for the show and I tried to do things a bit differently. The figurative elements which are always a bit hidden in my work became more apparent and I tried to give each painting its own personality, rather than produce a set of paintings. They’ve been a great gallery to work with, and all the work is staying in Korea, which is great.

Reprisal, oil, distemper, wax and charcoal on flax, 170 x 150 cm

AMM: You post your work on Instagram and you are on Twitter. How do you decide what to post, and what, if any, are the limitations and disadvantages, in your experience, to this form of exposure?

BJ: I’m more of a casual observer on Twitter, but use Instagram a lot more. For some reason I find posting my pictures in a public way helps me analyse them differently. I quite often post something up, then realise a few months later that it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest so will take them down. The limitations come from everything being a homogeneous size on the screen, so paintings of mine can look quite similar to each other—people are often surprised with my work when the element of scale is introduced. Other negative elements are an increased fear of missing out—although I’m fully aware that my feed is a somewhat curated view into my painting practice, it is difficult not to feel that everyone else is doing more interesting things. On a positive side, it is great knowing what people are up to, and I’ve become friends with a load of people after seeing their work on there.

AMM: Who are the artists that currently interest you, and why?

BJ: I love the work of my mentor at Turps, Alastair MacKinven, his new paintings are extraordinary. Michael Bauer and Michael Berryhill are doing very interesting things. Looking further back Andre Masson, Gauguin and El Greco are ones I return to. I try to limit my exposure to paintings when I’m working, but my influences are always there in a latent way.

AMM: How do you manage challenging moments in your artistic practice? Any words of wisdom you’d like to share?

BJ: I think most of the challenging moments are in my head—self doubt can be crippling at times, but you just have to work through it and try to ignore some of those nagging voices. My wife gave me a card about ten years ago, which is still up in the studio with “Never, Never, Never Give Up” written on it, I guess that would be a word of wisdom.

AMM: Let’s talk a little about your working space. What does your studio look and feel like? Is it your ideal working environment? Do you work from home?

BJ: My studio is in Hackney Wick, in an old peanut factory which is about 15 minutes from home. It is a great space, with a huge window with a large London Plane tree outside. It feels really private, even though there are about 50 studios in the building. Much as I loved being in a shared studio at Turps, it is great having my own space.

AMM: How do you plan your working day?

BJ: My working day is planned around my daughter Arielle at the moment, she is four and has just started school, so I have a set amount of time I can get in the studio each day, so I try to treat it like a 9-5 as much as possible, even though painting doesn’t really conform to those stipulations. These days I find a painting is not necessarily always resolved in the studio, it is in my time away from the work that my thinking is cemented.

AMM: What are you listening to and reading at present? How does it inform your art?

BJ: I listen to a lot of music in my studio, and I have a fairly broad taste, which is a bit hard to pin down. I’ve been listening to a lot of my old CDs recently, which were mostly bought in the mid to late 90s, so it’s a bit of a nostalgia trip. I always listen again to Marc Riley, and Tom Ravenscroft’s shows on 6 Music, and there are a few podcasts I listen to. I’ve just read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and I’m always dipping into JG Ballard’s short stories. I regularly read The New Yorker, and have a huge stack of National Geographics from 1977-1994, which are great to have in the studio. It is hard to gauge how these things specifically influence my painting, although I do steal a lot of song titles when naming paintings.

AMM: What are some of your interests besides making art?

BJ: All the usual things like travel, films, music, exercise. I’ve just started playing guitar again after a ten year break. I like cooking and growing my own vegetables, and I spend as much time in nature as possible. We’re lucky enough to live next to Wanstead Flats, which is the edge of Epping Forest, so I go running there regularly.

AMM: Do you have any projects in the works that you are able to share with us? Where can we see your work next?

BJ: I’m currently producing a limited edition woodblock print for Castor Projects and will have another solo show with them next year. There are a few other things in the pipeline, but I can’t talk about them yet.

Find out more about the artist: www.benjamie.co.uk

Interview by Maria Zemtsova, text by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.

Cataplexy, oil, distemper, wax and charcoal on flax, 170 x 150 cm