By VITTORIA BENZINE, February 2021
Vancouver-based painter Ben Reeves contorts his medium, experimenting with perception while nature takes center stage. His biography with Equinox Gallery explains that “Reeves is known for his sumptuous use of paint in compositions that deftly explore the relationship between abstraction and depiction.” No two moments look alike across the artist’s body of work—together, they form cycling permutations that disorient the eye before it surrenders to the hues ahead.
“At first glance, many of his works appear to borrow generously from 19th-century realism, yet they are often meticulously conceptual,” his biography points out. The work is almost deceptive in this regard, shirking viewers who might write it off on first assessment by mostly rewarding those who stick around. Its objective beauty comes in tandem with the desire to provoke thought. Reeves told me over Zoom that art has always been his preferred method of contemplation. “It was always pleasurable, but always something I did with a kind of serious attention,” he recalled.
As a child in the suburbs of Vancouver, he grew into a distinct appreciation for the legacy this Earth inherits with each successive day in human history. “I realized that the landscape and the land is always political, and it's never neutral. It always means different things in different contexts to different people,” he explained.
Reeves recounted one walk with his father where he learned that the surrounding forests were home to acres of second-growth trees—forests that had been decimated for industry, then replanted and regrown. “As a kid, I just couldn't compute that,” he remarked, “because the trees were so huge. I couldn't imagine that there had been time for them to have been completely cut down and logged off at one point, and this whole forest to have regrown again.”
In college, he studied math and physics, staying true to his suspicion that he’d have to work a practical job to support his artistic aspirations. “I had heard that physics engineering was the most difficult, so that's what I was looking at, in a kind of perverse way,” he joked. “I started to realize that wasn't really tenable, that it was going to have to be a choice of one or the other. I do remember consciously choosing to pursue art.”
Elements of his foregone education in physics linger in his artistic practice today. Quantum physics is one of the field’s hottest areas—quantum computing holds the secret to increasing our technological capabilities exponentially. Quantum theory, at its most base level, says particles can exist in more than one place at once. Classical physics, which our perception of reality is grounded in, works in binaries—it measures the movement of physical matter, and those measurements are either right or wrong. Incorporating quantum physics into our worldview would require an update to the perception of reality.
Reeves’s work dabbles in the scenery of his suburban home, itself more than one thing at once. “The suburbs are an interesting space, an in-between kind of space,” he mused. “My work straddles this ill-defined fringe between the so-called natural world and the human space, the suburban and urban spaces there.” The relationship goes both ways, he noted. Humanity permeates nature with logos on clothing, with litter and lounges. Nature also makes its way into our world—Rivers run wherever they want, regardless of our rules.
Much like a physicist striving to pin down reality’s most elusive secrets, Reeves constructs and conducts experiments to dig deeper toward the nebulous truths he seeks. This journey has led him through countless techniques. Reeves told me that years back, he was a strict plein air painter. “That has shifted quite dramatically in my work,” he remarked pointedly.
More recently, he eschews source materials except where necessary. “I found that the photograph is a wonderful resource for capturing details” the artist elaborated. “But also, I found that it was very easy for me to just start to follow the photograph, and to have the photograph dictate to me what I needed to follow in the painting. It would often lead me astray from what the initial motivations for a painting were.”
He still uses photographs for occasional reference material where useful. However, Reeves makes a point to put them away after they’ve served their purpose. “It means that then I can hold on to, a little more clearly, what's important about this depiction, this painting, this exploration, what's important about it for me,” he explained. “It’s more of a negotiation of myself, interrogating an experience or memory of an experience and not getting sidetracked by photographic evidence.”
Reeves code switches until he discovers something new, something that suits his statement where extant modes previously failed. “There may be more impressionist or post-impressionist kind of vocabularies being employed, but then at different moments I'll pull out a squeegee and pull the paint across or scrape my palate and push it into the surface,” Reeves described. “Often, quite early in a work, I’ll deliberately employ processes to interrupt my best laid plans.”
Exercises like these yield surprising results that sometimes grow into entire series. Reeves once had the idea to draw some of his older paintings. “There was immediately a fork in the path where I could choose to draw the image that the painting was representing, or choose to draw the painting itself, the physical surface,” he recalled. He was intrigued by the great unknown of the latter. “I started drawing, essentially, all the textures of the painted surface, the brushstrokes, the ridges and gullies of paint. I ended up with these elaborate, very unreadable maps of the painting, but there was this fugitive imagery hovering in the surface.”
Regarding these topographical creations, he noted, “I think I was trying to figure out a relationship between the material of the paint and how it could resolve into an image, or how it could resolve into a culturally meaningful object. When the reviews and feedback failed to reflect his own insights, he switched drawing for painting. “In order to make it a bit more dramatic in terms of the the process, I would typically start with a very small, fairly rapidly painted work that I would then remake, but many times larger,” he explained.
This process yielded paintings of snowflakes and portraits of people smoking. In the latter, large globs of gray paint stood in for smoke clouds, obscuring subjects’ faces and protruding from the picture plane. Reeves recognized two different intentions to works like these. “One was building a representational space and a connection with the psychology of the sitter, and the other intention was just flinging paint over the surface, almost vandalizing the painting itself,” he only half-joked.
By the artist’s own assessment, these three dimensional features “actually made the representational space deeper. There was a moment where the paint, in being literally itself, actually was almost more convincing as smoke or snow than if I had painted it with a tiny brush really meticulously. I think its material presence in relation to the viewer and the gallery space crossed the threshold from the representational space of the painting to the physical space that the viewers stand in, and hovered back and forth across that threshold.” It is both intellectually contemptuous and pretty much true—the globs of paint are objectively elementary, but they do look more like smoke or snow.
While it may seem extraneous for an article about a painter from Vancouver to focus so heavily on a stereotypically esoteric topic like quantum physics, the importance lies less in the machinations themselves than the greater symbolism. For so long, our society has operated on classical physics’ binary terms—right and wrong, good and bad, haves and have nots. Grey areas abound, and they repeatedly plunge our circuits into disarray.
“We tend to culturally define things so that they have a resolution that's knowable to us, that we can conceptualize and grasp onto and know, but the world never really fits that,” Reeves noted. Every legitimate moral dilemma to ever exist exemplifies the rigidity of popular modes of thinking. Rather than railing against their brittle boundaries, it might be better to move on to new methods. “If we pay attention to that, it becomes unresolved. The cultural frameworks and conceptual frameworks we apply to it don't quite fit. It is very much about that back and forth between a resolved representational moment in a picture, and those when it becomes more abstract, or falls apart a little bit and becomes something other.”
Perhaps art could provide a model for a new mode. “Perception is typically an unconscious function in the brain,” Reeves stated. “We take information, and our brain resolves it into a kind of readability or understandable experience, and that's what pops into our conscious mind. I don't know that this is exactly possible, but I am interested in the idea of holding that process of perception open a little bit, so that it's a bit more available to the viewer as an experience unfolding.” New modes of thinking are notoriously difficult to adapt—see the entire self-help industry. Bearing witness to the act alone provides new understandings.
Ever the quantum counterpart, Reeves illustrated how uncertainty is a crucial component of to his craft itself. When asked how he envisioned his practice developing, he replied, “I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.” Only exploration provides a solid central locus. “I'm always interested in pushing and testing that balance between the more formal or literal qualities of the paint and the depiction of space,” he offered. Art and science are two arms of the same machine moving human history—they work together. While physicists provide the practical technology to advance our capabilities, artists encourage us to wield these new powers with thoughtfulness and style, soft and enigmatic like Reeves’s work and reality itself. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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