Ben Peterson has a Philly moment, Part 1


I visited Ben Peterson, former Bay area artist now living in Philadelphia, about a month ago. And before the blooms are off the dogwoods I want to let you know about this great artist addition to Philadelphia.

Ben Peterson
Ben Peterson, in his studio, standing in front of the angled wall he draws on.

Ben and his girlfriend, Katharine Karnaky, moved here so she could attend graduate school in Textile Design at Philadelphia University. Ben’s got a gallery, Ratio 3, in San Francisco, and he can continue to work with them, shipping his drawings through the mail. I heard about Ben’s arrival from Artblog pal, Rob Matthews, who met him through Mark Shetabi, who used to show at Ratio 3. It’s a great network. Meanwhile, Peterson’s been doing his art and reaching out in Philadelphia and helping to do things like build walls and cook tacos at the Black Floor/Copy gallery. In fact he had a one-day show on the Black Floor at ICA during Locally Localized Gravity.

The Drawing Artist

Peterson is a drawing artist. He makes exquisitely detailed and pristine renderings of impossibile architectural spaces. He calls his imagined constructions follies, and they are indeed in that tradition of fanciful and unattainable spaces that are meant to set the mind to wander. The works I saw have an American West feel to them, both in their references to the desert, mission-style housing and landscaping that couples grass and cactus in rock gardens. But something about the blinding white of the paper that surrounds the unnaturally de-contextualized image evokes the bright relentless whiteness of the desert as well.


Ben Peterson
Inks on his work table.

The artist works on Lenox 100 paper which he buys by the roll (60” x 20 yds) from an out of town supplier. He uses the plate side and not the roll side of the paper. (The plate side is next to the plate when the paper is made — it is smoother than the roll side.) The paper comes in a box and sometimes the artist has to cut off a little of the edges since they get dinged in the rolling, boxing and shipping. He’s a good customer and if he has to send a too-damaged roll back there’s no problem.

He works up his ideas in graphite, then inks them in. The graphite takes the longest time, he said. The inking he compared, dismissively, to Paint by Numbers. He brushes on the big areas of color then uses Micron pens for the fine lines to crisp the edges and add details. He works almost vertically, on a wall that’s been set at a slight angle to the studio wall. Because there’s a slope to the drawing wall it’s easier to control the ink. Peterson’s works are pristine. The sea of pure white paper surrounding the completed image is like a miracle. If you’ve worked vertically with ink you will know this to be true.

Ben Peterson
Ben Peterson
California Ten, 2006/7 (detail)
Ink and graphite on paper
58 x 108 inches

At the time I visited, Peterson was sending work to Ratio 3 for inclusion in the first Dusseldorf Fair in April. Here’s a little writeup on the fair. Apparently, like all first-time fairs, and this one competes with the Cologne Art Fair which has been around a long time, it was a good first try.

I followed up with Peterson recently by email and asked him how the fair went. He said “Sales were modest, but interest and networking were apparently great.” Then mentioned he had just gotten his first passport for a trip to Poland where he’s got a three-month residency in Warsaw, at a place called Ujazdowski castle.

The Westerner

[Ed. note: this paragraph has been amended to correct an innacuracy. The person Peterson stayed with in SF for a month was the sister of the artist’s high school art teacher, not the sister of Chris Johanson.]

Peterson is a true westerner. He was born and raised in a small town in Nevada. His folks worked on a military base. His dad was a Navy man and his mom worked for a military contractor, Day and Zimmermann. He went to a tiny school – there were 25 in his high school graduating class, and was a skateboarder. In fact he doesn’t drive a car and never has had a driver’s license. After high school, he wanted to move to California. The sister of his art teacher who ran a gallery in San Francisco said let me help you. Peterson offered to exhange chores and go-fer’ing work for a month’s free rent with her in San Francisco. When he moved in for his free month, he stayed in a room Chris Johanson was moving out of.

Ben Peterson
California Ten, detail, showing 2x4s holding up everything.

He went to CCA on a scholarship. But the the money dried up and he left school, returning later and finishing his degree in 2002. “I thought I’d do printmaking,” he said, explaining that while he loved sculpture, he abandoned the idea of making it. “I hated how much sculpture cost. It so outpaced my wallet.”

The builder
“Growing up I built things with my father – even a car.” His father was a natural engineer who later went on to school and got credentialed as an engineer. “When I moved to California I did lots of construction. I did finish work “mudding” and faux finishing.”

Construction is a topic embedded in Peterson’s works. His last show at Ratio 3 was titled “You Build It, We Burn it,” a slogan of the eco-terrorist group Earth Liberation Front known for torching luxury condos in resort areas and other acts of eco-vandalism. The works showed buildings under construction or deconstruction and like the work I saw in his studio, the vision is a critique of consumption.

Ben Peterson
California Ten, detail, showing cactus garden next to grass

Here I will digress just a bit to say that Peterson, who is friendly and voluble, is also a major culture-vulture. He is fascinated with the built world to be sure and his pieces are critiques of the overuse, overbuilding, and stupid artificiality in today’s cities, suburbs, and exerbs. But he’s a student of human psychology as well and among other things, he told me about the Collyer Mansions, so named for two brothers in Harlem in the 20th Century who were hoarders and had built rooms within rooms in their brownstone on 5th Ave. and 128th St. He knows about the Rat King and made a piece titled Rat King that shows a big orange ball of electric extension cords wadded together into an unusable mass.

Ben Peterson, Rat King, 2006. Ink and graphite on paper. 22 x 30 inches
Ben Peterson, Rat King, 2006. Ink and graphite on paper. 22 x 30 inches

His new work, California 10, deals with issues of building and ecology. The piece shows a structure that’s part boat/part house sitting on an upheaved accordian-pleated state of California. Because of the obvious references to earthquakes and fault lines, and because in California earthquakes are very real and not abstractions the way they are to me, say, in Philadelphia, I asked him where he was during the big earthquake of 1993, thinking maybe he had a story.

“I was watching the World Series on TV. It was Bay vs Bay (Oakland v San Francisco). A lot of people must have been home watching it. The tv blacked out and we thought what was that? If more people hadn’t been in their homes watching the game more people would have been hurt,” he said.

“In Philly, I look around and worry about the bricks and mortar. That’s the first to fall apart in an earthquake. Those are the buildings you dive away from in an earthquake,” he said.

Part 2 here.


ben peterson, ratio 3



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