Artists in Shirts in Studios: Benjamin Deakin

Artists in Shirts in Studios: Benjamin Deakin

 

Last summer we sat down with painter Benjamin Deakin, for a conversation spanning the politics of landscape art, utopian thinking, and finding inspiration in hostile environments.

 

Nathan Sharp, Drake's: Tell me about the relationship between the real and the imagined, in your paintings, the interior and the exterior.

 

Benjamin Deakin: I’m interested in immediately creating an ambiguous space, that’s simultaneously inside and outside. I’m trying to represent the experience of being in multiple places at once.

One of the times I feel that most keenly is when I’m travelling. You become much more aware of your cultural associations when you’re brought up against other cultures or environments, particularly environments which are physically challenging, or which feel a little bit threatening, or disorientating. I like going to remote or inhospitable places, so I’ve done residencies in the Arctic, and journeys through the Icelandic interior. I’ve just come back from a trip to the Himalayas, which is very different because you’re in a structured environment, in that I was following a pretty well-trodden trekking route, but every now and then something would come along which could be quite life-threatening.

Talking about the idea of interior and exterior, the trekking routes all have these little tea houses thousands of feet up in the mountains which are made out of sheet metal, and bits of timber, and local stone. They paint these houses inside and out in really bright colours, they’re very shonky but they nearly always have these great big panoramic windows, because you’ve got the Himalayas right there! Nevertheless, inside they have these highly decorated waxed tablecloths, and brightly patterned cushions and furnishings. It speaks to something handmade, but they’re all mass produced in China out of polyester. And then you’ve got things like unbranded plastic chilli and ketchup bottles, napkin dispensers, and sugar bowls neatly arranged on each table. There’s this weird sense of being in a kind of ersatz environment, with this amazing Himalayan view right outside the door. So, that sort of condenses this idea of being two worlds at once. You could be in a cafe on the Walworth Road inside, but with Tibetan music playing in the background and a yak-dung stove burning, and then this Himalayan mountainscape outside. The quotidian and the sublime rolled into one. It reminded me of Caulfield's cafe painting in the Tate, ‘After Lunch’ (1975), with the alpine painting and the goldfish tank, but also those fantastic William Eggleston photos of American cafes and diners, except these ones are at 12,000ft! I've since started a series of paintings based on these tea houses such as the one here, ‘Gazer.’ Taking this more direct approach harks back to an earlier style in my paintings. It's early days, we'll see where it goes. 

 

'Gazer' (60 x 46cm, Oil on Canvas, 2020)

NS: Do you ever paint on location?

 

BD: It’s a wonderful idea which never quite manifests. When I’m doing a residency somewhere, it’s more like making field notes and being able to react to them quite quickly back in the studio, wherever I’ve been posted. On the trip to the Himalayas, especially when the landscape was quite challenging, you have no mental energy or physical energy left to sit down and paint. I did do some drawings on this latest trip, but they were more for getting into that kind of headspace, rather than something that might directly be useful in the work. There’s no hard and fast rule, but I’m a mostly studio-based artist who goes out, collects these experiences, and then remembering them, or re-thinking their significance later becomes part of the process. So, memory comes into the creative process that way.

 

NS: Do you ever worry that anything will be lost on your way back to London?

 

BD: Oh, yeah. But what’s interesting is what becomes important after the event. The notes you make in the moment, and then actually what comes unbidden later on.

 

NS: And when you begin a piece, how clear is your idea of it?

 

BD: [Laughs]. Very, very occasionally there’ll be a painting that just works from the beginning, but normally there are several states to all these pictures. They were all a completely different painting at one point or another, and then got painted over, and elements brought back out. What’s become a characteristic of my work is this layering, but what I don’t always want to let on is that’s mostly because there’s just loads of failed paintings underneath [laughs].

 

NS: I notice that your landscapes have become slightly more obfuscated. Is that a direction you’re consciously moving in?

 

BD: What I find interesting now is creating an immersive space, one that allows you to wander around in it, but which doesn’t give you any clues as to how to navigate it. The geometric elements have come in in the last three years or so, and those cut through the more obvious landscape aspects. They are references to the kinds of things we impose on the world, culturally, or economically.

It comes back to an environmental interest, about how we quantify certain parts of place, or how we ascribe value to one type of place over another. And obviously this is now a highly political topic, in terms of the environmental impacts that our society has. I’m at a sort of crossroads where I don’t know whether I want to make work that is overtly about that, or let that be implicit in the work. I wonder if you can make images which are full of obfuscated source material, but which nevertheless contain a very clear message. That is maybe a sort of ideal I would like to strive towards, something that is ambiguous, and yet can still have some potency in light of all these things that I’m interested in.

NS: The paintings have an immediate visual effect. They use a very striking colour palette. Is that important?

 

BD: The choice of colours was more about conveying a sense of heightened experience. But it’s amazing how subjective the interpretation of colour is. People often talk about the paintings being beautiful, or pretty, or feminine in general mood. I don’t have a problem with any of that. Being a landscape painter at this point in time is… it’s not considered to be at the vanguard of contemporary visual thinking. But I would, for the reasons we’ve been talking about, disagree. There’s an immediate impact of colour, and detail, and texture. Then as people get sucked into them, hopefully, they will go on these journeys through them, and some form of grit lodges there.

 

NS: A chequerboard motif reoccurs in your paintings. That was an important image for the surrealists, is that a tradition you are referencing?

 

BD: Absolutely. And [the Surrealists] in turn got it from older paintings which are full of surrealist motifs, even though they were not really understood as such at that time. There are some famous old Flemish paintings with all these really odd objects, which are making reference to various religious stories. But if you were to look at them with an open mind, they’re fundamentally surrealist objects, and chequerboards feature very prominently. Paul Nash is another artist I’ve been looking at recently, and he uses them extensively. Now we have a whole other use of that kind of imagery, in the form of computer-generated topographies for video games. They all use a meshed grid as a way of defining the topographies, distance, and perspective.

It’s a very common tool, in a way, and what I suddenly began thinking about was trying to fuse all of these ideas into one experience. I was on a residency in the south of Spain, and I decided to make my own chequerboard, but at a human scale. I found some old building materials which lent themselves to making these things, and I made steel and fabric chequerboards, carried them down into the landscape, setting up my own slightly surrealist mini dioramas. I photographed these in different locations, and they subsequently became the basis of a set of paintings which featured in my solo exhibition at the William Morris Society last year. 

NS: You’ve referenced ideas of utopianism in your work. In that context, the absence of people in your paintings becomes interesting, perhaps even conspicuous.

 

BD: There’s a sort of conceit there, because there’s almost no corner of the planet where there isn’t human influence. Now, in terms of our influence on the climate, there is no part of the planet that’s untouched by human intervention.

There are two things at play here. The first I’ve already mentioned, which is that I want the paintings to be an inner experience, for them to work on the mind of the viewer as somewhere that they can roam around in. If there were other figures in there, that would completely re-contextualise that space. And then there is the prevailing trend in landscape imagery, which has been to render the landscape as somewhat mute. By turning a landscape into a picture, we impose our various cultural stereotypes onto this space. Obviously, we do this with people, too.

What I want to do is create paintings in which the landscape has an agency of its own. The landscape often affects people in very tragic circumstances whether it’s landslides, or weather systems, nature bites back with a vengeance. On a quieter level, there are sections on the map of Iceland where they can’t fill in the topography because they don’t know what it’s going to look like yet, because it’s still cooling. It’s this idea that there are forces which are beyond even human influence. We’re so accustomed to looking at certain geological formations, but what those represent in terms of force, and time, and magnitude of natural forces is almost beyond comprehension. Nature is always impassive, but we’ve assumed that it only comes into being when we look at it. Whereas, in actual fact, it can easily act upon us.

 

NS: It doesn’t just bend to our will.

 

BD: No, much as we like to think it does. And a lot of that idea of bending nature to one’s own will, because that’s the ‘will of God’ or man’s dominion over nature, that’s been borne out in Western Europe, and North America. I’m particularly interested in the language that’s used in the period where the pre-American West was being opened up, and all of the hardship and exploitation that went with that. There’s an incredible vocabulary used to justify those things.

 

NS: Manifest destiny.

 

BD: Manifest destiny, exactly. All of that side of things, that ideology. There’s the irony that landscape painting is seen as a very polite artistic and creative form, and it’s most often associated with little polite watercolours that people buy on holiday, and yet there’s no such thing as a non-political landscape painting. Any image of the landscape has political connotations.

 

 

Benjamin's latest book, Reimagining Somewhere and Nowhere, with Stephen Baycroft, is available now (Baycroft Publishing ISBN: 978-0-9955276-2-1).

'Compositor' (120x 140cm, Oil on Canvas, 2018)