Aviv Benn

Aviv Benn

Falling over myself at these fantastic paintings by Aviv Benn, currently an MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who is about to open a solo show in Tel Aviv on July 20 at Raw Art Gallery. The intense palette and charged, ghastly faces and tangled limbs are a nonstop wallop of energy. Check out more at the links after this fab interview!

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First, tell me a bit about you! Where are you from, and when did you first become interested in making art?

I was born and raised in Tel-Aviv, and ever since I can remember myself I was painting and drawing and I never stopped since. 

I was always enthusiastic about art and painting in particular, but I came to the realization it will be my life and not just a childhood passion during my military service. At the time I was taking a Psychology 101 course at the Open University, thinking it was an option to pursue as a Bachelor's degree after I finish my service. Boy I was wrong! I hated every minute of it. That was the moment I realized I wanted to study art and become a professional artist and to stop fooling myself that I could be anything else. A year after I finished my service I enrolled into Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and graduated with a BFA in 2013.

You're currently midway through an MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. How has that experience been so far? How has the first half of the program impacted your work?

This year has been a rollercoaster! I am constantly encouraged to push my practice forward, it's inspiring but also very challenging. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the stress and workload of grad school, but I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this creative community. I realize how rare it is in a painter's career to be in constant discourse about their work, since painters usually work in solitude in their studio. Being in grad school, and specifically at SAIC, means I am surrounded by inspiring people that keep me on my toes and I am thankful for every second while it lasts.  

Before I started grad school, I felt that painting was something that "happened", that I have no control of what was happening on the canvas and I was letting intuition to play a big part in my studio. The reason I decided to pursue an MFA after a few years of developing my studio work on my own, was that I wanted to become more aware as a painter, to learn how to balance between intuition and intention. After this year I can definitely see a huge difference in the way I work, I am learning to understand the meaning behind my painterly gestures to make more complex, thoughtful work.  

Can you describe your work? What sort of ideas or themes are you exploring?

My work consists of paintings and drawings (this spring semester I also started working in textile print as another form of painting), painted in direct and expressive language. They depict the body and more often than not, specific body parts such as mouths, hands, teeth and tongues. I use these parts to compose screaming or anxious monster-like figures who exist in an undefined limbo. This body of work is my reaction to the current era we live in, this time of uncertainty, fear and hopelessness. It is important to me not to depict a specific event, and to keep the interpretation to the viewer; whether the work resonates a personal crisis or they read it as a depiction of the state of humanity in general. 

You use a lot of bright reds, pinks, and blues. What is the significance of these palette choices?

Yes I do! People are reacting to the red color, that's almost the first thing people pay attention to in my work. To me it's first of all to echo anxiety, this blaring red or pink as an alarming color that makes the viewer feel some discomfort especially when they stand in a space with 15-20 red paintings, it has a certain impact. Secondly, it's how the inside of the body is represented in cartoons. Whenever a cartoon character is bleeding or we see their insides it's always depicted in these unnatural reds or pinks.  I see it as a way to distance us from the actual pain and violence in the cartoon, if someone is hurt and their blood is this bright red, then the blood must be fake and they are not really in pain. I see it as a bizarre defense mechanism we constantly use and I find it both disturbing and fascinating, it camouflages the pain in a way, and I like playing with that idea in my paintings. 

What is your process like? 

My process is very fast, I am the most impatient painter. I usually work on 3-4 paintings at the same time in different phases, the gestures are very rapid and expressive. I can finish several paintings in a few weeks.

This year I started working with distemper (rabbit skin glue and pigment), which dries very quickly so I can finish a painting in a few hours. I also combine distemper and oil paint in the same painting, which allows me to play with the translucency of the distemper and the opaque oils to create a more complex sense of depth, a richer painting in terms of materiality. 

Like I mentioned, I also started working in textile print, to create large scale paintings. These paintings are made in monoprint from several screens so I can create an image quickly, but transferring the image to the surface is a more sustained process and it affects the way the image is built in the "space" of the canvas as opposed to painting it directly. 

I believe that painting is standing on the shoulders of giants, as research I look at the work of painters I admire and try to learn from them.

I pay attention to their brush strokes, compositions and color choices; how they resolved a painting and what can I gain from them and implement in my own work. Lately I am fascinated with James Ensor, Odilon Redon, Asger Jorn and Andrรฉ Butzer.

What is your studio like?

Very clean and tidy (as much as it's possible for a painter ha ha). My work is very expressive, busy and dense and the images are repetitive and I create relatively a lot of work in a short amount of time. That is why I try to keep the environment in the studio as neutral and uncluttered as possible, so I can focus on the painting and to actually see what I am doing, otherwise it becomes overbearing to be in the studio and I can't paint. After I finish painting I put everything back in its place and I clean the studio until the next time I make a mess.   

What do you do if you find yourself in a creative dry spell?

I try to push through dry spells and come to the studio every single day. I see it as a job, like going to the office. You don't go to work only when you're feeling inspired, you go because you have to. I believe most dry spells can be overcome by working and making a habit of going to the studio almost every day. However, when I am really stuck and nothing is working, I go to the museum (and we are very lucky to have The Art Institute of Chicago across the street from our studios) and walk around, I find it very helpful and usually it does the trick!

What is your favorite piece of advice?

"Work hard in the studio and things will happen". It was after I graduated from my undergrad and struggled to jump start my artistic career and I was feeling very lost and confused about the future. I met with my former professor and that's what he told me. When he first said it I was very baffled by it, but now I understand what he meant: that your focus as an artist should always be on your studio work, the career and success are only secondary to that. 

How would you define "success?"

Wow that's a very big question, how should an artist define "success"? by popularity? money? fame? being well liked by the public or well liked by the art community? sustaining a steady career over years? supporting yourself by selling your work? being a professor generations of students are inspired by? being an artist at the beginning of my professional career I am just starting to realize the meaning of these different paths to "success" and defining my personal version of success. In the meantime I try to focus on what I can change right now, so for me success is having a breakthrough in the studio, a day I made some progress in my practice is successful one. 

What do you feel is the most challenging or daunting thing about pursuing art, either creatively or professionally? What have you done to overcome that?

In one word: uncertainty. There is no insurance in pursuing a career in the arts. Even the most successful artist can wake up one day and realize nobody is interested in their work and they are irrelevant. It takes a lot of courage to the point of border-lining delusion to be an artist. I don't know anyone who isn't doubting themselves sometimes about choosing this career path. Whenever I am doubting myself and feeling uncertain about the future I go to the studio and work. Artists are so lucky to have this freedom of exploring their practice every single day and it's stronger than any feeling of fear or uncertainty. 

What are you working on right now?

Currently I am working on the finishing touches of my solo exhibition that will open this July at Raw Art Gallery in Tel-Aviv. I will be showing recent paintings I worked on this year, I am very excited to see this body of work installed in a "white cube" setting and hopefully it will assist me to figure out some things about my practice for the next school year. 

Anything else you would like to add?

Thank you for the opportunity to be featured on Young Space :) I appreciate it a lot. I find these platforms so helpful and important for us young artists.

Find more at avivbenn.com and on Instagram @teeth_dream!

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Alice Woods

Alice Woods

Ross Brown

Ross Brown