Ben La Rocco’s current exhibition Alien Bird Song opens today at John Davis Gallery in Hudson, NY. It is an exhibition of new painting and sculpture, a departure from the artist’s usual practice of showing paintings exclusively. The searching, open nature of this work is inspiring.
I’ve known La Rocco’s work for over a decade, and have known him personally since 2006. Throughout the years we have carried on a conversation about painting, art, poetics, and our lives as intertwined within them. Difficult, romantic, never predictable, La Rocco’s work stands apart. It speaks to the searching soul of an individual outside the status quo. Not an easy position in this postmodern age of social media where “liking” something has replaced critical dialogue, and self-branding strategies tied to expectations of instant success have replaced the long hours of study and isolation necessary for artistic development.
We spoke two years ago in our Artist Exchange published in this venue, just as La Rocco spoke to Peter Acheson in 2013. Many of the issues we spoke of then remain relevant today, maybe more so. I thought this would be a good opportunity to continue our conversation.
* * *
CO: In your new exhibition, “Alien Bird Song,” at John Davis Gallery, there is a material reality to the work that is undeniable: Masonite, framing brackets, wood, nails, paint, etc., that speak to experiences beyond the studio.
BL: Yes. I spent several years working construction, up until about three years ago, around the time my son was born. I went on to renovate a building where a number of us now live and work. At the time, all of this was pretty grueling. But at the end, I was left with a chunk of knowledge about how things get built along with a glut of materials — so much waste takes place in the process of what we call renovation, making things new. It’s really terrible. So I felt responsible for all this leftover stuff. And I also found myself in it. I related to these leftovers. It felt good to try to take care of them. So old Masonite that had been used to protect floors during construction became paintings, some of it relatively unaltered. Odd bits of building material got stuck together to form sculptures. All of this stuff, I felt, was the stuff that had been allotted to me. It was my apportioned share to look after.
CO: This engagement with the raw materials of your life speaks to the reality of matter possessing history, content, and soul. The soul of a bent nail, for example.
BL: Yes, it’s animate, all of it.
CO: As Gary Snyder, among others, has made clear, sometime back in the history of Western thought there was a fork in the trail away from this kind of thinking. Descartes, Newton, and Hobbes can be said to represent this fork, claiming a dead, knowable universe where life in the natural world is “nasty, brutish, and short.
BL: I guess all of this has to do with how much store you put in your own judgment. I don’t have too much faith in mine anymore. So if someone tells me that things may not be as they appear, I’m pretty open to the idea. And when I realized that people had been saying that for a long time, albeit a minority of people, that kind of sealed the deal.
CO: Descartes, Newton, and Hobbes, all of them city dwellers by the way.
BL: Hey now.
CO: Well, this fork in the trail is not only a profound rejection of the natural world, but also of the simple reality of the soul history of objects. Surrealism, in its own way, made a bold move to reconnect us to this strange reality in the life of objects. Where do you see your work in relation to this?
BL: Well, that’s just the great thing about art isn’t it? The burden of scientific proof is removed. When Richard Tuttle takes a tiny bit of rope and sticks it in the middle of a big wall, that rope seems to come to life for some people. Suddenly the space of the wall is animated by the different kind of space in the little twist of rope. At the same time, the rope, in isolation, takes on some kind of personality. Now one way to look at this is that the artist’s vision has transformed the situation of the rope and the wall and what we perceive as life is simply the animation of his vision. I don’t look at it that way. My experience is that the wall and the rope had life before they were stuck together. Tuttle was just able to see it. None of this is probable. And yet it can be felt.
CO: I agree, it is most certainly felt. It’s felt before it’s understood. In your current paintings, the principles of abstract composition and design feel to have been jettisoned for a tawny grammar of marks and movements. You’ve taken what is ostensibly junk, discarded detritus, and elevated it to a level of rare beauty. The work somehow stands just beyond the ideals of taste and ‘good painting.’ I appreciate that.
BL: There is some kind of confusion in my nature with regard to received methods of doing things. I’ve always had it. I’m left handed, mildly dyslexic as a kid, which I think are physical symptoms of doubt: do I really have to do things the way I’m being shown? I’m not sure I’ve jettisoned any principles in my work because I’ve always felt it was incumbent on me to go beyond whatever understanding I had of what I’ve been taught. So art is always transforming itself, which I guess doesn’t leave much room for formal considerations. And I’m not a formalist. I’ve always believed in the space where painting joins all the other arts — performance for example. To access this space we must always question all of our presuppositions, all of our training.
So the materials that I work with are always a means to this end. I want to know how to respect the nature of an object — to let it be itself — and at the same time allow imaginative transformation to act upon it. I want to see the intertwining of fantasy and reality as it takes place. My will is to remove my will from the situation! I’m glad you see a subversive quality in the work. From my perspective, seeing the work on display, it’s striking how much I’ve imposed myself on the material.
CO: This is very much what the artist Peter Acheson calls ‘defacing the painting,’ where nothing is left to sit comfortably or easily. As he has articulated it to me, once the painting has developed to a safe, recognizable state, sitting agreeably in its own language, you should make a bold move to interrupt that language. This pushes you and the work into unknown territory and opens the door for all those unknowns to rush in. In this way the painting really can, and does, work on you. The imaginative transformation happens both ways, and in the end both are changed, painter and painting. You can no longer sit back and congratulate yourself on doing everything you already know how to do, and then expect everyone else to congratulate you too. In fact, Acheson recently proclaimed, “Lets make 2015 the year to make the bad paintings we really want to make!” Why do you think this is such a threat to so many artists?
BL: Yes, I relate to that impulse to destroy all that one recognizes in one’s work. It seems productive. However, I find I am forced more and more to recognize that these acts of destruction are really no different from any other action. I fancy them so only because of my proprietary attitude toward what I make, where the proprietary position itself is an illusion. The self is the agent. So what is a self… and who or what does a self serve?
I find it threatening to contemplate the possibility that what I’ve called “myself” all this time might not be what I thought it was and might not even be recognizable to me if I could see it in the light of truth. I understand the feeling. But I also find it exhilarating.
Beyond that I’m not sure that it’s possible to make bad paintings intentionally any more than it’s possible to make good paintings intentionally. It seems to me that this is a kind of koan, a riddle meant to snap us to attention with regard to what we are actually doing. And if that’s the objective, then I’m all for it.
CO: It’s also one of the deep joys of creative work, the freedom to fail, to cast your self into the mystery. I feel that’s what Acheson was saying, too. So much of the work of our contemporaries feels a million miles away from this. The fear of failure, the fear to muck it all up, is palpable. Everything is very good, very calculated, very safe. Maybe it’s a result of so much education, the “professionalization” of the arts? But, really, how many derivative Forrest Bess paintings are we going to swallow before we say enough? It’s disrespectful to Bess!
BL: I’m not sure we do fear failure. I think we ignore it altogether. I don’t think it’s important culturally. The market determines status and worth. What does failure matter if it too can be bought and sold? I don’t think we fear failure. I think we’re all driven by and subject to the demands of a society that isn’t the least bit interested in goals outside the material. And the degree to which we judge ourselves by those standards is the degree to which we will fail to integrate into our lives and our work messages like the one in Bess’s work.
Bess was so hopelessly himself. He couldn’t hide his strangeness, even in the deepest isolation. What he had found was so important, so beautiful that he could not help but externalize it. And we are all just like him, just as strange, which is why we are drawn to him. And in the end, he paid the price for his self-expression, which is what we all fear.
I don’t blame anyone for being afraid today. There’s plenty of reason. There are few ritual rites of passage honored in our culture for the growth of spirit. As a result we concoct our own fragile protective structure for what integrity we have. And these structures are always threatened. The irony is that they could never save us anyway. In fact, they help obscure the one prize to which we have certain access: our own strangeness.
CO: It’s the acceptance of that unique strangeness in the individual that feels lacking today. This is the fear I was speaking of. So, the artist who is painting “post-Bessian” paintings is finding the style without the way of life. There’s a deep dishonesty in this that is being celebrated today. It’s easier to affect the style of Forrest Bess than it is to look deeply into one’s own soul, enter the darkness found there, engage with the voices and create from that. That’s the real work.
In 1956 Sun Ra stated in his liner notes to the album “Super Sonic Jazz”:
The greater future is the age of the Space Prophet,
The scientific airy-minded second man:
The prince of the power of the air.
The air is music.
The music is power.
The power of the past was its music.
The greater power of the future greater
Greater music is art,
Is its greater music:
Art is the foundation of any living culture.
Living culture is skilled culture.
Skilled dutifulness, aim and care.
And love of beauty is the only way to produce art.
Despite the skilled dutifulness you’ve applied to the works in this exhibition, both paintings and sculptures, I can’t help but feel the presence of a “scientific airy-minded second man” coming through them. By that I mean the presence of something other than yourself and your intentions.
BL: Well, isn’t it great to imagine that in each of us is this grand mystery coming through? Maybe whether we like it or not? The fear comes in letting go of the self as an end in itself. And all of the aspirations we attach to the self… If I let go of that will I still get what I want? What I need?
Sun Ra was obviously willing to confront that fear and let the other through. He wasn’t bound by what others told him he could be, either. Conformity’s razor cuts both ways, from the inside and out. Not an easy gap to shoot.
But what a ride! When you finally see the Loch Ness Monster, rising up out of the waves in the Bermuda Triangle, wasn’t it worth the wait?
I’m definitely interested in intentions. Not necessarily my own.
Ben La Rocco: Alien Bird Song continues at John Davis Gallery (362 1/2 Warren Street, Hudson, New York) through March 29.