The Place Between the Layers: Ben Waterman’s Midnight Lullaby

Ben Watermans paintings invite extended meditation on seemingly banal objects: a red mosquito net, a brown piano, a vacant fireplace.  These highly specific objects float in contrast to their surroundings--disorientingly unidentifiable places painted with inarticulate brushstrokes. Given the Seattle artist’s pronounced affinity for travel to new places, these surreal landscapes prompt questions on the complicated role of inspiration within constructed visual images. I caught up with Ben to discuss Midnight Lullaby, his new show at Greg Kucera Gallery, and the real places buried within the layers of his work. - Erin Langner, Seattle Contributor

Ben Waterman | Piano in a Room with a Greek Amphora, 2011, Oil paint and graphite on canvas, 24 x 40 inches.
Image courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery.

Erin Langner: The show’s title Midnight Lullaby seems fitting, given the dream-like compositions of objects and figures within the works.  How did this title come to you?

Ben Waterman: In January I had half-finished pieces stacked up everywhere in my studio.  I just couldn’t resolve them and ended up pushing many too hard, destroying them in attempt to get at a yet-unknown element.  Around that time, I started referring to the paintings as lullabies.   Surprisingly, this pushed me into the direction I wanted to take.  Often, when I hear a lullaby late at night, I find myself drifting, almost seeping into the music.  It was that underlying sensation that I wanted each of the pieces to have and also to tie the series together.

Ben Waterman | Flowers Drying in the Beams, 2011, Acrylic and oil paint, clay, drywall 45 x 55 inches.
Image courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery.

EL: Many of the paintings have a particular object that grounds otherwise largely abstracted imagery, such as Mosquito Net (Sri Lanka).   Do those objects hold a particular significance?

BW: In terms of Mosquito Net, I recently spent a month in Sri Lanka, a place recovering from revolution.  Both an extreme amount of tension and hope saturates the country.  This could be felt very tangibly--through the many road blocks one encounters, in casual stories people told about family members’ throats being cut, in the way eyes light up when mentioning the end of a 30-year war, through the palm trees cleared for new homes.

Ben Waterman | Mosquito Net (Sri Lanka), 2011, Oil paint on paper, 40 x 26 inches, diptych.
Image courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery.

One evening, towards the end of my stay, I slipped under the mosquito net covering my bed, immediately feeling safe, as though I could rest and sleep peacefully.  Instead, I found myself trapped, with a swarm of mosquitoes inside the net with me.   You can imagine what happened next.  I can never know what it is like for the people of Sri Lanka, but that experience embodies my own concerns and anxieties related to their situation. The mosquito net functions both to exclude but also to keep, to trap inside.

Ben Waterman | Lovers, 2011, Oil and acrylic paint on paper, 20 x 26 inches.
Image courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery.

EL: Layering plays an interesting role in these works—the layering of paint, layers of objects within a scene, as well as layers of meaning, such as that you just described.  How do you perceive this element of your process?

BW: I wanted there to be a sense of having arrived from somewhere within these works.  Folds and layers give a sense of time and origin.  Similarly, I wanted the paintings to appear as the last layer on top of a series of unknown events.  The way oil can draw color from one side of the paper to the other, as found in Lovers, is another means of layering and revealing history.

Ben Waterman | The Grand Rooms, 2010. Image courtesy of the artist.

EL: Rooms and objects, such as those included in your more sculptural show The Grand Rooms (2010) evolved fully into two-dimensional images throughout Midnight Lullaby.  What was the impetus behind this shift to works on paper?

BW: The Grand Rooms referenced the 17 successful escape tunnels located under the Berlin Wall. 450 feet is the average length of these structures; 450 feet therefore meant an entirely different life. I created the length of those 17 lines using a thumbprint in clay. These piles of thumbprints were the foundation of The Grand Rooms.  The time that it took to create the prints in clay lines provided the opportunity to consider many questions related to that number.  I have found questions generated through an example become alive in a very different way if you really chew on them.

The board that I used to paint the prints on also featured prominently in The Grand Rooms. When transformed into a canvas, this board confirmed my belief in compression, in terms of how a two dimensional surface accumulates and expresses incredible amounts of information and effort.  We have the ability to perceive a high degree of complexity and sense the history behind it even if uncertain of the exact origins.  Similarly, I continue use interiors and rooms in my work as they continue to hold stories.

Ben Waterman | Sleeping All Winter by the Fire, 2011, Acrylic paint on canvas, 30 x 30 inches.
Image courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery.

EL: Do you expect the concept of travel to continue into your future work? 

BW: We all have 24 hours in a day but how we engage that day varies considerably; those systems are very personal.  I appreciate the unique way people live and go about doing the mundane: how someone will start the day, the songs they sing when putting their children to sleep, how they get food into their mouth.  Every place I visit and the people I meet enrich my experience of the everyday. Out of clarification, I don’t travel in order to mine those experiences for art.  I simply become interested, caught up in or fall in love with something; art naturally springs from those situations.

Travel will be part of my future work.  Recently, Leonie Bradbury, curator at Montserrat College Of Art, invited me to create several books starting in late August. The content of the books will include my travels abroad but also some of my adventures in the Northwest, such as freight hopping throughout Oregon and Washington.  I also anticipate including experiences from floating down the length of the Columbia River, which I will begin in July.  How to translate these adventures into the intimate experience of a book will be a good challenge.

Ben Waterman | What We Took and the Rooms We Keep Them In, 2011, Acrylic on paper, 27 x 40.5 inches.
Image courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery.

Midnight Lullaby is on view at Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle, WA through March 31, 2012.

Erin Langner is a writer based in Seattle and is Assistant Program Manager, Education and Public Programs at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

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