Interview with “(Sub)Urban” Artist Benjamin Rogers

This is the second installment of the (Sub)Urban interview series.

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Benjamin Rogers | Artist | (Sub)Urban from October 30 through December 16, 2017 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Cristy Ho

 Let’s begin with some background information about you. Where are you from and how did you get into creating the type of art you are making now?

I am originally from Kentucky, I lived there for the vast majority of my life but I’ve lived in Colorado for the last 2+ years with my wife and son (who is now 3.5).  It’s a long road to get to how to making the type of work I’m making now.  When I started studying painting I was really only interested in abstraction and non objectivity.  But none of my friends really believed that I knew how to paint, so I made a realistic self-portrait and got a lot of great feedback which felt really good, but I was also challenged in a different manner than I had been working abstractly.  For a number of years, I tried different ways of combining representation and non objectivity, with a variety of results.  Working this way made me interested in the contrast between dimensionality and flatness which is a theme that has really stuck with me.

In terms of imagery I was heavily influenced by David Hockney’s figurative work, although I have to admit that this influence was almost entirely subconscious, I had made several paintings before I realized how much I had borrowed from him.

Your current work is comprised of paintings of people and everyday objects that inhabit particular spaces. What do you hope to represent in your work by choosing to paint these subjects?

Each painting is in some way trying to manufacture a narrative, I have a specific narrative in mind when creating the piece but I like to create a somewhat ambiguous painting which invites the viewer to complete the narrative. The objects around the figure(s) are meant to be like attributes in a painting of a Saint, they inform the character and the narrative of that individual or group of individuals.  So in some paintings the narrative is fairly prosaic in others it is much more heroic.

More on your artistic style, I’m drawn to how the proportions of the people and objects in your work are realistic yet the bold colors you use also break your subjects into geometric forms. Is there a specific reason why you choose to intensify the saturation of each object in your paintings as opposed to using a more muted palette?

This mixture of naturalism with an almost cartoonish color palette is directly related to what I was saying earlier about the contrast between flatness and dimensionality.  I am trying to push the imagery to be somewhere in an almost non-real place.  I really like realism, but ultimately find it somewhat boring.  So by pushing the saturation of the colors I’m and creating a work of art that is somewhere in between realism and flat graphic imagery and hopefully making a more unique contribution to the visual landscape.

Your work also appears to be very structural composition-wise and perspective-wise. On your website, you mention that you work from photographs. Do you rearrange objects in the room before taking a picture or do you rely more on shifting perspective to create the ideal composition you want for each painting?

When I work from photographs I do so in a few different ways, every once in awhile the original photograph is sort of perfect how it is, which was the case with “What did I know of Love’s Austere and Lonely Offices” and a few other painting.  Most of the time I have to make slight alterations to fit better into the composition.  Before I draw my imagery I always put down a grid that measures the ratios of the format of the canvas, so then I will move objects and figures around to ensure that they align with those compositional elements in the most effective way.  Along with this method I also invent a large portion of the objects in the room and other visual elements during the painting process, this allows me to see the canvas as an abstract picture plane and place things in the painting based on their color relationship and their conceptual connection to the figure.  This is how “The perfect romance of self reliance” was made.  The last way that I work with photographs is really based in photoshop and actually cutting things out and putting them in different places and really creating a photo collage out of several photographs and them pushing them together during the painting process to make everything seem coherent.

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What Did I know of Love’s Austere and Lonely Offices by Benjamin Rogers

Now on to your piece ‘What Did I know of Love’s Austere and Lonely Offices’, a watercolor painting based on a photograph of you and your wife weeks before your son was born as mentioned in your blog. The viewer of this piece feels a sense of being on the ground and looking up at this scene as if they were a child. Can you talk more about your emotions on entering parenthood and how it ties into the Robert Hayden poem that inspired the title of this work of yours?

I think that the best description of that time would be ambivalence.  I was really excited to be a father, but I realized it would mean that a lot of things were going to change dramatically.  My wife and I had not really even known each other at that point.  We met and started dating long distance (she lived in Minneapolis), then got engaged 5 months later and started living in the same city (Cincinnati), we were only engaged for 3 months before we got married, we moved back to Minneapolis for a teaching job I got, and my son was born 10 months after we were married.  So we really didn’t have any settling in time as a couple, and everything was really up in the air (at this time I knew my job was going to end in a couple of months and had no idea what we were going to do).  So all of that stress was mixed with being a father, which is my biological imperative that I knew would come to shape my life for the next 50 years or so.  The poem just made me think of the kind of thankless job that is being a father, providing and quietly doing things for a family that aren’t necessarily noticed or appreciated, that that is love.  It is pretty strange, because the photo was taken at this time, but it wasn’t painted until well after we left Minneapolis to move back to Cincinnati to live with my parents while I tried to find a job and then moved out to Colorado where we are now.  So my son was probably two by the time I actually painted this piece. Also, I’m not sure if I had said in my blog post or not, but this was actually taken on my 30th birthday, so there’s a little of that flavor in there as well.

I remember reading Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden as a child and how deeply the first few lines resonated with me.
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold
 
Blueblack is somehow the perfect color to describe a father’s austere love. I really want to say that I love how you captured the shadows in this piece. You mention that you initially painted all the shadows on your body blue but covered most of it in the final image except for the shadows around your neck. Is there any other instance where you have utilized color to express the mood in this piece?
I have not ever really been interested in expressing mood through color, I guess it always seemed like a cheap trick, or a gimmick in a way, so the blueness of the male figure (me) isn’t really there to communicate an emotion or mood, but more because it seemed appropriate in the context of the colors.  This painting was really my first attempt at making watercolor painting, NOT the first time I’d used watercolors, but they’d always been used as more of a study, or a medium that I would play around with.  In fact, I had taught three semester of watercolor classes before I made this piece.  I had used it to experiment with watercolor underpainting, and really establish a cool temperature under the figure from the outset of the painting.  My thinking is that the shift in temperatures from shadow to light is what really transform a painting to be highly dynamic, so I was trying to emphasize the shadows from the beginning and see how much of that cold underpainting would show through even after layers of warmer colors were applied to make it look more “realistic”.
The wooden frame also complements this watercolor painting well. This material matches the cabinets depicted and creates a homey atmosphere. Is this your intention and how significant is having this kind of frame for your painting?
The frame was created as a way of presenting the watercolor with a glass or plexi barrier.  I have been struggling with how to present my works on paper, and I made another frame like that one for a drawing, and was really happy with it.  What is interesting is that I got into a national watercolor show and before the show opened I was informed that I needed to reframe the painting if I wanted to include my piece in the show.  The establishment for watercolor painters is very hoity toity and want things done only in particular ways, so it’s cool to get that feedback.  I was really just trying to create something neutral where the painting was floating, but it happens to match the cabinets with the elder wood.
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The Perfect Romance of Self Reliance by Benjamin Rogers

Moving on to your oil painting titled ‘The Perfect Romance of Self Reliance’, there is a packed room with various tools scattered on the floor and tools clutched in the hands of a woman who appears to be your wife. Would you say that this painting is like a snapshot of an event or more so a portrait of this person? 
This painting was kind of a collaboration between my wife (then girlfriend) and I.  She is a photographer and had moved to Minneapolis just because she always wanted to.  There was something that I really admired about this, because I would be far too worried about making enough money, not having any friends, being lonely etc.  So it was kind of meant to be an ode to her self reliance, and really display her as a hero a al Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”.   The objects on the ground are meant to be a collection of tools that she will use to conquer any obstacles that may cross her path.  So she took a bunch of images and sent them to me, many were beautiful but didn’t quite fit my aesthetic but I thought that one was great.
What do you like about painting with oil and what do you like about painting with watercolor? Is there a medium in which you find it easier to convey your message and mood?
  Painting with oil is my favorite medium, I didn’t do it very much until I moved to Arizona for grad school.  Before that I worked almost entirely in acrylic, which was cool, but in retrospect it was very limiting.  In the humid climates of the Ohio River Valley and Louisiana, acrylic paint was really easy to work with, but in the Arid climate of Arizona it was basically impossible.  So that was really why I got into painting in oil, but when I did I really jumped in whole hog.  Almost immediately I fell in love with oil painting, and felt like I could paint whatever I wanted and was no longer restricted by the physical attributes of the medium.  That’s been my favorite ever since.  Watercolor is a different kind of challenge and makes a very different type of mark, I really like the layering process that comes with using watercolor on cold pressed paper, and how you can really build up the surface with pigment, but the physical surface is still very flat.  With oil paint you get a physical change to the topography of the painting’s surface.  Generally before I start a painting I have a personal formal challenge of some kind, and it is generally specific to the imagery that I’m working with, and that will inform the medium that I use.  For example I have a drawing titled “addressing the fourth wall” I wanted to make a piece that was nearly completely black, which lead me to make my first major charcoal drawing.  I am working on a color pencil piece right now, and I will be making a pastel piece after I finish that.  So the imagery generally provides me with a technical challenge that makes it more advantageous to use one media instead of another.  This usually works out great, but I have a piece called “Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw” That I’ve done as a graphite drawing and a watercolor and neither really feel right for the image, so I’m going to keep working with it until I get it right.
Lastly, what inspires you the most and what is your motivation for creating art?
I’m influenced and inspired by a lot of things, mostly I draw upon other art, like music, poetry, books, films, and I also draw a lot of influence from other artists and art history.  I usually try to have my compositions relate to art historical references, but in a lot of ways they are more inspired by Wes Anderson, Tarintino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and other cinematic references. In terms of how I conceive of a work of art, my ideas come from many places, often they are formal in nature.  Like, I will want to do a painting with a particular color harmony, prominent color, or a particular theme which references art history.  Sometimes I will have a title which will inspire a piece, sometimes I’ve finished a piece well before I have a title for it.  Most of the time I start with a particular idea, then it evolves with my concept and then evolves after the photograph has been taken.

Check out (Sub)Urban in The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, happening October 30 through December 16, 2017.

For more information on (Sub)Urban visit thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery.

 

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