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Ben Cove

21.08.15 --- 11.09.15


Q&A with Ben Cove

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Acrylic on panel




Acrylic on panel




Acrylic on panel




Ben Cove with Chris Shaw

CS: A quick visit to your website reveals quite a bit has been written about your work. How do these texts come about and how involved are you in the process?


BC: The texts that accompany solo shows are commissioned but are sometimes written by the curators of the show. The interviews or Q&A’s come from being approached. For my last two solo shows George Vasey has written the essays. I first worked with George about six years ago when he put me in a show he curated. Since then he has gone on to establish himself as a really good writer as well as curator and being as he’d known my work for a while and seen it develop, I thought he’d be able to bring a lot more to it.


In most cases these texts are preceded by studio visits in front of the work or phone conversations and thoughts and images in emails. Sometimes I’m asked what I’d like the text to focus on, but usually I don’t want to dictate this. I’d rather see what the writer picks up on, what they think are the most significant aspects of the work. I don’t think it’s the job of the writer to relay an artist’s intentions, you can do that yourself - it’s much more valuable to hear an interpretation.


Having texts written about the work by someone else is a real luxury. Previously I’d written about the work myself and this was then often rehashed into a press release but I’ve never been comfortable with this. Philip Guston once said in an interview that it’s not the job of an artist to speak about the work. There are times and places for this, but for me the pressure of trying to write (speaking is usually easier) during the making process can sometimes be very difficult. It’s often much easier after the event. Writing about my own work in a general way is one of the hardest things to do, answering specific questions less so.


CS: Are you surprised by some of the ideas and notions that other people have about what you do?


BC: Yes, sometimes I’m surprised by what’s written, but I’ve never felt anyone’s been massively off the mark. Often the most surprising things are the comparisons to other practitioners whom you either weren’t aware of or have never consciously seen a connection with.


CS: My studio is next door to the Three Works space and it's been a real pleasure for me to stop work and wander into the gallery and get close up and personal with your paintings. As you first encounter them, they appear luminous on the black walls. There is a sort of preternatural perfection about them - but on closer inspection the processes which brought them into being have not been totally eradicated. Mistakes are painted out but traces remain. Are these traces something you mind talking about?


BC: Of course not, they’re very evident in the flesh and I make no attempt to remove them. My process involves little pre-planning and a lot of changes. I have the option of sanding down or scraping back to remove these traces but I feel that would be dishonest to the process. These paintings only seem possible through this process of constant change. Attempting to pre-plan them doesn’t work so I think it’s important to leave an honest indication of this.


CS: Your time-lapse videos are mesmerising but I'm often surprised by what you paint out. To me, some of these earlier, hidden, painted-out stages seem just as effective as the finished work. Is it that you are suspicious of quickly arrived at solutions?


BC: No, not in the slightest. I don’t see a direct correlation between time spent actually making and the quality of the work at all. Time spent thinking, looking, discussing and reading are also part of making the work so I have no qualms about work that’s quick to execute. In fact the paintings I made for my MA show (when I came back to painting after a break of about 3-4 years) were one-day pieces. This way of working meant that the editing process resulted in throwing out a large proportion of the work that didn’t meet the grade. After working this way for a while I decided that the works would benefit from re-working to try and reach something different. The quicker work has a spontaneity that I really like and my way of working now can mean that I get to a point where I’ve kind of killed it through overworking. I often paint over a lot of a piece towards the end of the process to resurrect it, though getting to this point - accepting that you have to lose a lot you like - is often difficult to accept.


I often look back at pictures of earlier versions and see some bits that are really good but overall the work isn’t right. I continue to work on something until I have what I want (although I don’t think I can really articulate what this is). These changes can be formal decisions, but often it’s to do with the character or tone of the work - things can look good but they need to be doing something. Arriving at this point - knowing when/what to add and subtract is the hardest part of the process.


CS: Your Three Works paintings are all done on panel. Do you ever use canvas?


BC: I am only working on panels now as they’re the best surface for the way I work. I need something rigid, smooth and stable for the way I paint. I did work on linen for a while and would consider it again if I scale up and the weight of the work becomes a major consideration.


CS: You use acrylic paint. Are there any drawbacks to this medium?


BC: Acrylic really suits the surfaces I want in the work at the moment, the flat deadness that you can only really get with acrylic. A few years ago I’d been working in oils for a while but decided that I wanted less of the maker’s hand in the surface. I sometimes yearn for more of the depth and subtle shifts that are possible with oil paint but really what I want from the work is something more clinical. I think one of the strengths in the work is the relationship between the clear intent of the paint application and the somewhat clunky-looking image and so the surface finish has to be tight.


CS: You told me when you were over in Weymouth hanging the show that you paint on the floor? Why?


BC: Logistically it’s easier and more comfortable to have the work flat. I spend a lot of time masking off and this is easier if you can reorientate around the work. Also the majority of my paint finishes are flat colour and you minimise drips or running. I don’t work like a traditional easel painter - make some marks, step back to look then continue, i.e. frequent decision making and alteration etc. - I look at the work on the wall, make a decision, lie it flat, carry out that decision without really looking at the whole, rehang, look, decide. I feel like it’s more a process of building or constructing as each element is added and subtracted.


CS: The precision that is a part of your work takes time. This must pose problems when the number of shows you are asked to take part in increases ten-fold as is your experience in recent times. How are you finding things at the moment?


BC: Difficult, but good difficult.


CS: Do you listen to music in the studio while you work?


BC: Often but not always - but what I listen to when painting is quite specific. If I’m doing things that require less concentration then I don’t have constraints, but I do when painting. It has to be largely instrumental and not too emotionally intense. Usually it has to be familiar so I’m not too distracted and it has to have the right kind of tone for the work.


CS: What are you reading at the moment?


BC: In recent years I don’t seem to be able to read one thing at a time from cover to cover (I blame the internet and its effect on my attention span!) so on the bedside table currently there’s - Jazz by Toni Morrison, London the Biography by Peter Ackroyd, If On A Winter's Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino, 33 Artists in 3 Acts by Sarah Thornton.


CS: In a recent Q&A you did with Yvette Greslé you spoke about good taste and kitsch and that, ideally, you'd like your work to fall somewhere between the two. You said you often put things in your work that you're not very keen on. Can you give any examples of what you mean?


BC: The desire to pursue those things that sit outside my comfort zone comes from an interest in how authority is acquired and lost in cultural output and the shifts in what is considered tasteful and acceptable. These things vary dramatically and constantly change. In order to stop myself from falling into a safe way of working I feel the need to address the things that I’m unsure about, it’s a kind of thinking through making. I could go on but this isn’t answering your question.


In recent works there are a number of things - the fluorescent colour is something I’m unsettled about but I felt I was slipping into an easy palette and needed something dramatic to jolt me out of it. Another recent example is the kind of faux-marble that has so many associations. Neither of these are things I detest, I have mixed feelings about them, but they bring with them a host of differing associations. The work needs to jar to an extent to stop it becoming too comfortable.


CS: You speak a lot about the influence of modernist architecture on your work in your Q&A with Yvette Greslé, and your paintings with their shadow effects are not unlike architectural drawings ready to be pitched to a committee of town planners. Often, in the plans that architects draw up, the human figure is used to give an extra sense of reality to spaces not yet in existence. Your paintings don't go as far as to include figures, but you have said that your work relates to the body in some ways. How so?


BC: I have looked a lot at architectural drawing since it was taught on my architecture degree. Digital imaging was only just starting to be adopted by students at the time so drawing and physical model-making were key. One of its primary attractions for me now is that it is essentially a language which speaks of endeavour.


Formally, architectural drawings combine a flat diagrammatic language with the pictorial and mimetic. My Fine Art MA thesis examined the changing role of the figure in architectural drawing in the twentieth century. Essentially, it went from having a largely functional presence as a simple indicator of scale, to something much more propagandist often used to infer either the inclusive or exclusive intent of a design. My painting language certainly takes much from architectural drawing, though as you imply, these are not mock-ups of buildings.


One of my key interests in architecture lies in one of its essential functions: as a container for the body, albeit a non-specific body (with occasional exceptions). This is also the case with my interest in furniture and product design - those things that take the body as a starting point. The body is present in these things but not visible.


Much of my work hints at the anthropomorphic - both figures and faces. This came about in part due to an interest in pareidoloia - when the mind has a tendency to perceive a familiar pattern (particularly a face) when one isn’t present. In the work there is an acceptance that an audience (myself included) will attempt to read something representational into abstract forms that are unfamiliar and therefore exploit this by way of suggestion.


In addition to this, it seems impossible to me to ignore the presence of the body when making work and when decisions are made as to how it will be displayed. The body determines a lot in the studio - from limitations to strengths. Fundamentally, I’m physically making things and even apparently two-dimensional things such as paintings require consideration as physical objects during production. When it comes to thinking about display, how someone will physically deal with and respond to the work is in the forefront of my mind, particularly when I’m given a particular space to work with.


CS: At the outset, I had said to artists invited to show at Three Works that they could paint the space any colour they wanted. Why did you choose black?


BC: Being offered this was great. I always see my work on white walls, apart from when I hang on top of large photographs as I’ve done more frequently in recent years. I had initially thought of a dark grey but one of the pieces has a dark grey background so I thought it may merge into the background. Being as the work is pretty loud in terms of palette, a bright colour seemed out of the question really (or I was too much of a wimp!). I thought black would intensify the colour of the work and minimise shadows on the wall so that the pieces would seem almost suspended - the painted sides make them much more object-like. I think it worked well… though I know it was a nightmare to get an even finish, so apologies!


CS: Sharon Hall's show came after yours and she decided to foreground the paintings by going for a centralised hang, but the way you chose to hang your three works meant the display itself came into focus. The works were positioned to one side of the room which left lots of wall space empty. In some ways it pronounced the divide between the artworks and the viewer - they on one side and the viewer on the other. How do you feel about the hang now?


BC: I can see how that was most appropriate for Sharon’s work - and as you know, we also considered it when we came to hang. I really enjoy what you can do to the work outside of the studio in terms of hanging and have often wanted to stray from treating each space I show in a homogenous way. Though the works are essentially two-dimensional images, I’ve always treated paintings as objects and so when they’re placed in any space, I feel that the relationship to the walls, floors and the viewer is another element to the work itself that can be utilised.


The Three Works space is a really beautiful space so I wanted the hang to allow some of this space to be left as it is. The way we hung in the end allows relationships between the three pieces that change the way the individual works are read… and being as two of the three seem to be ‘pointing’ one way i.e. Ad-Lib pointing out to the left and Homunculus to the right, I wanted to work with this. Ad-Lib sits alone pointing to the blankness of space and Homunculus leans towards Stack which is much more static – two’s company, three’s a crowd...