Ben Peterson, Part 2


[See Part 1 of this studio visit.]

I asked Ben Peterson about California Ten a monumental work that was pinned to the wall when I visited his studio a month ago. (The piece went to Dusseldorf as part of Ratio 3’s booth in the First Dusseldorf Art Fair.) Peterson said that the structure is loosely modeled on a Spanish galleon and the house is based on a Spanish-style house. There are San Louis Obispo tiles and the sleeping bags on the roof are references to Hurricane Katrina.

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

“It’s important that it prods something in the back of the mind. Or I hope it prompts a recurrence of memory,” he said. To me it brought up many things. It seems child-like and doll-house-like. It reminded me of how children create structures willy nilly out of poles and bed spreads, and then they play house inside.

There’s references to desert landscaping in California 10, which, to my mind, is a monumental work. The sodded grass lays next to rock gardens with cactus planted in them is absurd. Peterson lets the sod drape over the edge of the upheaved California, like so much left-over material. There’s ideas about survivalism in the work and the artist is fascinated with the militarism inherent in that movement. There are many layers on which you can enter a Peterson work, and it unfolds in many ways once you’re inside.

Ben Peterson
Model for California 10.

“There are 2x4s to prop everything up. I’ve seen that done. There is OSHA Yellow…The flags are the flags of every state that touches foreign country (the land borders), so California, Michigan, Maine, Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico.

While his drawings assume human inhabitation and a cast of perhaps funky, crazy humans, he never draws the people into his works. “I never use people,” he said. They’re folly’s, architectural follys, like those false ruins in French gardens. You’re meant to mentally inhabit it but not physically.

Other pop culture inspirations
Peterson talked about the national borders in relation to drug houses in developments near the border and tunnels that go under the border to get to them. Apparently that really happened. He also talked about the 1970s movie craze for houses inhabited by demons. And the phenomenon of keeping up with the Joneses and its opposite, the obsessive hoarders like the Collyer Brothers in Harlem who had stacks of things in their rooms so that each room was a room within a room. Now, firefighters call such firetrap houses “Collyers mansions.”

Growing up

Ben Peterson
Drawing in process in Ben Peterson’s studio in Philadelphia. The drawing has a bunch of red doors and has to do with the color red and the idea of luck.

He grew up at a time when playing records backwards to hear the satanic messages was cool and painting the walls of your room black was also. He did both, decorating with skulls and scented candles.

[Ed. note: This paragraph has been altered to correct an innacuracy. Peterson says any new direction in his art was due to a reaction to “Mission School” art.]
He was involved with pirate radio station in the Bay area. He had friends who were involved with massive temporary group building projects. With his construction skills, he was a big help “raising the barn.” After a while though he got frustrated by the art-by-committee approach. He didn’t want to make messy abstractionist paintings like some of the group was making. He finally just split off and started working on things that satisfied him. Probably this new direction in his art was a reaction to what’s called “Mission School” art. The group is Creative Growth in Oakland, and they were written up in the ANP Quarterly.

What art does he like?

He’s hot on Alice Aycock’s 70s work and Mary Miss and he thinks they’re both highly under-rated.

How does the west-coaster like Philadelphia?

He likes it. And in fact he recently rode his bike down to “a really old church on 2nd St. opposite the Book Trader” (um, Christ Church?) at a time of day when it was de-populated. And he thought Philadelphia felt like out of another time. And he thought maybe he could live here.


ben peterson, ratio 3



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