Our interest in the US artist Frank Benson began with his lifelike sculpture of trans, writer, dj, model and performer Juliana Huxtable. Covered in vibrant gold with meticulous attention to detail -it is a stunning piece. Inspiration from the Greek goddess Heamaphrodite is hard to ignore.
Interest piqued, we explored the ubiquitous Google for more and we found (as is the case with many creatives) Frank Benson has another interest-photography. Indeed, creativity is often too restless an energy to be contained to one medium.
In his photography, Frank Benson employs the same meticulous skills in sculpting to create equally stunning, slightly surreal and thought-provoking images.
You are a creative polymath (it seems). Do you mind just explaining how you find a passion in each of those disciplines?
I’m flattered, but I think polymath is a bit of an overstatement. My practice is mostly limited to sculpture and photography. I have dabbled in many different forms of expression over my career as an artist. I am however a novice at most of the mediums I have explored. All of my experiments in different media have, however, helped inform my work in sculpture and photography. I like to tailor my ideas to the limitations of the process I am using for a given project. Whether it is large format photography, lost wax bronze casting, bent plywood form lamination, extruded ceramics or 3D printed sculpture. I try to learn as much as possible about the process that I am interested in using. I let those findings inform my technical and creative decisions, so that the finished work is a natural outcome of the given process.
What drives your work? We saw a quote from you, which stated that your goal “is to create works that are unquestionably intentional in their realization and open ended in their logic.”
I think that quote still applies to everything I do. I never want to make work that looks unfinished or incomplete. It is important to leave some space for the viewer to discover the work without imposing my own interpretation. Currently I am working on a figurative sculpture that involves some very idiosyncratic choices in the costuming. These details help tell an interesting story. However I don’t want anyone to question whether or not the decisions I made with the piece are intentional.
Talk about creatives who have helped shape your ideas. We understand you trained under Charles Ray, could you talk a little bit more about that?
Yes, I studied under Charles Ray at UCLA and I maintained a friendship with him after I graduated. He and other LA artists of the Helter Skelter generation, like Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, were very influential on my thinking as a student. UCLA in the early aughts was also an intellectual hotbed for photographers. While I was there, I had the opportunity to study with James Welling, Jeff Wall and Cathy Opie. Their rigorous formalism and critical eye left a long-lasting impression on me. Other names like Christopher Williams, (a prominent conceptual photographer in LA) and my peers at UCLA like Michael Rashkow and Nancy deHoll have also inspired me.
I have also found a wealth of inspiration in film, particularly Ridley Scott’s early science fiction films – Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) – and David Cronenberg’s body horror films – Dead Ringers (1988) and eXistenZ (1999). The moody cinematography and raking light of Scott’s films helped shape my photographic sensibilities. The perverse props in Cronenberg’s films have informed my approach to object making.
We are really keen to talk about your photography but your sculpture work is powerful. Talk about your sculpture of Juliana Huxtable.
I had been working on a long term commissioned sculpture with a model named Joe Heffernan when I decided to make the sculpture of Juliana. Joe is a close friend and longtime fan of Juliana. He suggested I meet her as a potential model. I was stunned by her presence and knew she would make a great subject for a figurative sculpture. Then we arranged a photo shoot to decide on the pose. I had made one standing male figure and one standing female figure. I thought it would be interesting and challenging to make a horizontally composed sculpture of someone who embodies both genders.
After considering a few options, we decided to make the sculpture nude to emphasize the connection to classical depictions of the hermaphrodite in Greek sculpture and to celebrate Juliana’s unconventional beauty. The work was made using the same 3D scanning, sculpting, and printing process that I had developed to create an earlier sculpture called Human Statue (Jessie). Now I am now using that same process to create a new sculpture.
Sculpture is such a natural subject for photography
What are you working on right now from a sculpting point of view?
I am working on a figurative sculpture of a Castaway that was informed by the story of Alexander Selkirk. He was thought to be the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robison Crusoe (1719). The sculpture was created in a 3D modeling program called zbrush. It will eventually be 3D printed in plastic, cast in bronze and displayed in a historic site called Goldney Gardens in Bristol.
So, to photography-what does the term abstract mean to you and how do you create abstract photographs for your own work?
To me, abstraction means placing the formal and compositional aspects of an art work above meaning or representation. While most of my photos are representational and easily readable as images – well lit and clearly in focus – the subjects in the photos are often inscrutable and mysterious because of the way they have been altered, posed or arranged. The viewer is presented with an object in a familiar space. Often do not know for sure what they are looking at. For me this state of confusion is the most exciting relationship one can have with an art work. I seek out this quality in work by other artists too.
You have an interest in photographic work, which manipulates everyday objects. Can talk more about that?
Yes, this comes out of a history of the manipulated found object that began with Duchamp, Man Ray which has been passed down to artists like Fischli and Weiss. Their films and photographs had a profound impact on me as a young artist. Many of the objects I have manipulated are quite small or ephemeral. I use the camera as a way of preserving and enlarging those objects so that the viewer can appreciate it the way I do.
And personally, where did your interest develop?
As a child of the 80s, I developed a desire to manipulate and distort the cold and impersonal plastic home goods that populated the world around me. I may have inherited this inclination to experiment from my parents. My father was an incessant tinkerer. On the weekends the house was filled with home improvement projects, chemistry sets, model rockets and car repair.
During dinners with my Mom I developed a habit of melting plastic drinking straws over candles as a way of quietly acting out. Later I discovered that I could melt other larger consumer products into unrecognizable forms. Eventually I channeled this into my art. Some of my early photos like Bowling Balls and Tissues were informed by movies like Poltergeist (1982) and the Exorcist (1973) along with real life reports of paranormal activity that I read about as a child. In these narratives, normal household objects, like dining chairs and tennis balls took on an elevated status and miraculous quality because of the way they were supernaturally stacked or arranged in a domestic space by unseen forces.
There seems a great deal of preparation in your shots despite the objects being everyday. Can you talk about techniques and the preparation for your shots-we love the shot of the candle?
Yes, that’s true. Most of my photos were taken with a 4 X 5 camera. It requires a lot of patience, but the resulting photos have a stunning amount of detail. Some of the subjects in the photos also required careful preparation. The candle photo mentioned was carefully melted at an angle over a few days so that the wax would stand out sidewise and appear to be in motion in the photograph. Similarly, the spray can is a photo of a static object. Leaked insulation foam frozen in space. In the photo it is hard to tell if the foam is solid or in motion. Other details of the image like the light coming in through the darkened window place the object in familiar space while lending it a surrealist quality. This was inspired (in part) by Magritte’s painting The Empire of Light.
Talk more about the technical aspects of your photography and precision.
I usually try to achieve a commercial quality with my work. I use precise staging and lighting so that the consumer objects that I manipulate, pose or distort are returned to the world of manufactured desire from whence they came. To do this I use whatever tools are most current. When I started photographing my still lives, I used the 4 X 5 view camera the gold standard for product photography. As medium format digital it has become the standard I have also made the switch to digital. I usually rent standard strobe lighting kits from a nearby photo rental company if I am shooting indoors.
Where are the synergies in photography and sculpting – do you merge these two worlds how and why?
I think there has been a longstanding relationship between photography and sculpture that doesn’t exist with other mediums. Sculpture is such a natural subject for photography and artists have used photography to document their work since it was invented. Brancusi’s photographs of his own work in the studio are stunningly beautiful. They offer an informative insight into his process. But these photos also stand as works on their own. Many artists of the 60s and 70s used photography as a way of documenting their work as well. Without photography we would have no record of Chris Burden’s iconic performances or Gordan Matta-Clark’s brilliant architectural interventions.
What about more contemporary artists pushing that relationship you speak about?
Contemporary artists, like Thomas Demand and Daniel Gordon have taken this relationship to sculpture a step further. Creating elaborate paper tableaus exclusively for the camera that are destroyed once the photo is complete. I use photography throughout the entire process of creating my work. Photographing the model to establish a pose, documenting the process and ultimately photographing the final sculpture. It helps me to control the way the work is reproduced and distributed once it has left the studio.
From your website it seems that you have not made any new photographs recently. Have you had a bit of a break? What can we look forward to?
Lately, I have been focusing more on my work in digital sculpture. I’ve found that this combines all of my interests in sculpture and photography in one medium. Over the last few months, I have created a virtual studio in my computer. I can build 3D models in one program, then paint, light and photograph the models in a virtual space. I can acheive this before ever realizing the work in the real world. My goal is to make the renderings I create in the computer indistinguishable from the photographs. This way the renderings will operate as both a tool for visualizing my sculptures and as photographic works themselves.