Yael Ben-Simon

Yael Ben-Simon

I'm a huge fan of Yael Ben-Simon's treatment of heraldic and national flag imagery, which, influenced by her upbringing in Israel, she forms into gorgeous, abstracted paintings, and are timely explorations of nationality, politics, and history. Much more at the links below!

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First, I'd like to know a bit about you! Where are you from, and where are you based now? What first interested you in making art?

Hi! I’m originally from Israel. I grew up in a small town in the north of the country and got my BFA from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. I moved to the USA in 2013 to pursue my MFA degree at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and moved to Brooklyn a few months ago. Right now, I’m actually in Israel for a while but hoping to get back to the States by summer.

I took to art from a very young age, so it was an easy decision for me to pursue art academically.

However, by the time I graduated from Bezalel I was a bit disillusioned with art and art-making that I thought my life will probably take a different trajectory from what I had initially imagined. Surprisingly enough, I found myself drawn back to art making again. The sensation of making things with your hands and presenting it to the world is no short of exhilarating, particularly in the world we live in now. 

Specifically, the mere act of transforming physical materials into ideas thrills me enormously and essentially keeps me going.   

What has your art education been like, formally and/or informally?

My undergraduate program was my first encounter with art in a critically demanding environment, and it was really eye opening and exciting! It was a time of learning, experimenting, asking questions and trying to soak everything I could from my amazing teachers. They would always encourage us to find ways to accomplish our ideas, so you first learn how to think about things and articulating them for yourself and then, and only then, you choose the right material in order to fulfill them. It was a very liberating way of working, but at the same time extremely difficult. I remember crits were these spectacular events where teachers and students alike would talk, argue and laugh for hours over art works.  

When I started my MFA degree, I’ve been already out of school for a few years. This time allowed me to develop my ideas on my own without the constraints of critiques and deadlines. So when I began the program in Chicago, my ambitions and goals were more pronounced. During my time there, I tried to find the right balance between staying true to myself and taking in the criticism of my peers and professors. As a result of this challenging time, my work has changed completely and I really think I have evolved as an artist. In some ways, I am still processing my time there.

Informally, everything I see and experience can be registered somewhere and then find its way to my works. I maintain the notion that artists have to be curious in order to make good work, and to take interest in many things beyond art and the art world. I try to read prose and poetry as well as educate myself on matters of history, design and architecture. Being an artist heightens your critical sensibilities, and while some people would regard this as a burden, I feel blessed that I have the training and capacity to look at the world and constantly ask questions. I am especially drawn to all forms of storytelling, whether in a Titian painting or in a reality cooking show.  

You primarily work with paint, and your recent work centers around imagery of flags, which seem to be a natural extension of previous work that explored patterns and fabric designs. Can you explain where this idea comes from and what you're trying to achieve with it?

I started employing patterns in my works as a way to hint at how fantasy (of regality, luxury and splendor) immigrated into contemporary domestic spaces. I was intrigued by how those archaic patterns that used to adorn the dwellings of the very few who could afford it, are now a synonym for tackiness and cheep kitsch by their sheer ubiquity.

From that point on, I started to think of how visual language of patterns and symbols reflected identity, especially imagined or fabricated one. I was already immersed in this visual language of nobility when I made the shift into heraldic symbols and flags, so yes, it was a pretty natural transition.

With the flags, I am now more invested in the idea of allegiance. How one symbol can unite so many people, move them into tears and propel them for action (in many cases, war). As an Israeli witnessing the ever growing nationalistic undercurrents in Israeli society, I became more and more sensitive to how the flag is treated and celebrated.

The reason I am using archaic flags instead of contemporary ones is twofold. On the one hand, I do not want to be confined within the category of “political art”, a risk I think is viable when it comes to contemporary flags. I have no desire to critic a specific current situation, but instead to direct my flashlights towards the condition of human power and its many visual manifestations. A theme I think is relevant since time immemorial. Second, the well of coat-of- arms symbols is surprisingly versatile and bizarre, hence extremely playful. As such, it is a gold mine for a painter. Symbols of mythical creatures alongside “proper” animals such as lions, tigers and eagles have been celebrated on crests, shields and fabrics from the middle ages onwards. In my paintings, the flags are always in a state of motion, so the symbol on top of them is often skewed and twisted. Having an animal symbol as the vehicle for that adds another layer of humor, I feel.

What is the thing that intrigues you or challenges you the most about the media you work in, or the ideas related to it?

Working with paint is the most challenging and rewarding thing in my practice. I love watching the transformation of materials into something completely different; I think that is why I ultimately stick with painting, because of its magical aptitude for transformation.

I also work extensively with stencils to create my paintings, and I often think of how they relate to a world of printmaking and mass production. Conceptually, it fits the flags because they too are flat images that demand to be ubiquitous.

Do you do any research or preparation of any kind before beginning a new piece?

Yes, a significant amount of preparation and research goes into my work.

First of all, I try to educate myself on the background and history of the symbols I’m using. Obviously, they have a rich history, which I want to respect.

The last series of works I’ve made centered around the idea of the military conflict. In each painting of this series, I picked one battle from history and made a “reenactment” using flags of both opponent sides. So in this case, I researched many different wars and conflicts before deciding which ones I’m going to focus on.

After I choose the flags or the symbols I want to work with, I create a model using an animation software called blender. I stage all the elements I want to appear in the painting and play around with composition and size. Once I can commit to a composition, I create another file to be processed by my stencil printer. When I have all the stencils I need, I go about the process of making and applying paint.

I make my own acrylic paints using pigments and binders to achieve the perfect consistency of paint my work requires.

What is your studio like? 

Right now, I do not have a studio. But when I do, it is often extremely messy! I work with a lot of processes and materials and often work on the floor, so things can get pretty out of control very fast!

Do you have a favorite tool or object in the studio that you couldn't work without?

I work with many tools in the process of making a new painting. One indispensible tool is my stencil printer. Originally, it is meant for cutting paper and fabric for scrapbooking, but I use it to make stencils from plastic sheets. It is very small, so whenever I work big, I have to print many individual stencils and then merge them into a big one them to get the scheme that would fit the size of the fabric.

What do you think is the most challenging or daunting part of pursuing an artistic practice, whether creatively or professionally? What do you do to get through it?

There are so many daunting parts in being an artist! I honestly believe it is one of the hardest paths one can choose. Not only is it often financially unrewarding, but artists constantly put themselves under massive self-scrutiny and doubt. The crazy oscillation between success and failure, by your own parameters, is often dizzying. I have a hard time knowing if something works or not. On top of that, operating in an art market that is speculative and opaque is often disheartening. I try to stay engaged and curious about what I’m doing in the studio, with hope that this determination and strong belief will show itself in the work. Community of engaged peers is also key in maintaining a healthy and sustainable practice.    

You've been out of the university setting for a couple of short years -- is there anything you've learned in the meantime that you wish you would have known before you graduated?

I would have made better efforts to have more conversations with my peers and faculty, during grad school.

What is the best advice you've received? 

Not really an advice, but rather something I picked up along the way and I keep thinking about a lot, is to try and get closer to things. It sounds a bit opaque, but once you really think about it, it can be applied to everything. Whether it is dealing with materials and getting to know their qualities better, or staying engaged and interested in different situations, I feel this is something of a guideline for me both in art and life.

What do you need most, or value most, as an artist?

Well, obviously time, space and fine materials! But then again, good conversations and studio visits just keep me going.

What are you working on right now?

Right now, I’m in sort of a forced hiatus, because I am trying to get my visa to the states so I can continue my work there. I have a few paintings in the Wassiac Summer exhibition opening in late May.

Anything else you would like to add?

I really appreciate this opportunity to be featured in your blog! It is such an inspiring space to discover and get to know so many talented artists. Thank you so much!

Find more at yaelbensimon.com and on Instagram @yaelbensimon!

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