Tempe Artist Ben Willis on Portraiture, Experimenting with Pattern

What happens in the studio, shouldn’t always stay in the studio. Studio Visit Q+A is a weekly series that profiles artists in their studios. We ask them questions, they provide answers, and then we have a nice discussion about their work. This week: Tempe artist Ben Willis.

Ben Willis has always made the world around him a major part of his work. His MFA thesis work from 2013 was based around painting those he came to know and love during his studies at ASU. Since then, he’s been experimenting and taking a bit of a different approach, opening his practice up to trends in both popular culture and visual art. We sat down with him in his home studio in Tempe to see what he’s been working on.

Prior to studying at ASU, Willis was making paintings based on collage work that pulled from advertisements and current events. He would juxtapose fashion models with images straight out of the news. In graduate school, he switched from this larger scope of culture and the world to the more tight-knit community of ASU. He started painting people he knew instead of the archetypes of popular culture. “There’s something different about when you paint someone you know,” said Willis, “you have this relationship with them.” His recent work combines this intimate portraiture with trends in visual culture.

One of Willis’ most recent works is currently on display until May 31, 2015 at Phoenix Art Museum in the “2014 Contemporary Forum Artist Grant Winners Exhibition.” Above the Rim is a self-portrait made from a photograph taken at the Grand Canyon, superimposed with a colorful and decorative pattern. These patterns are a motif that Willis has been experimenting with recently. Instead of working solely in straight portraiture, he’s using other methods to capture the essence of a person or place.

In his studio are the experiments that led to his use of pattern. Colored pencil on mylar is layered on top of straight-on graphite portraits. The works have this sense of push-and-pull — the viewer has to engage with the work to see the portrait beneath. With these works on paper, Willis is pulling from patterns that he sees often, whether in popular culture or in contemporary artistic trends. He takes in the visual world, digesting it and reconfiguring it in his own point-of-view.

This way of working is certainly a liberating departure for Willis. The demands of realistic portraiture are not present when simply dealing with color and pattern. His thoughts become more visual and intuitive. One of the walls in Willis’ studio is filled with these experiments, forming a glossy and modular painting. The patterns in these acrylic and resin works resemble that of textiles. Light reflects off of the surfaces and the viewer can see themselves in the mirror-like sheen. In a way, the work still functions as a portrait of sorts.

These experiments will certainly lead to something new for Willis. The paintings have the potential to become an installation, a departure from the conventions of painting. He plans to continue to push these works further by bringing in new materials and continuing to experiment with color, texture, and shape. The process is fun for Willis, and it’s something for him to do over the summer in between teaching portrait classes at Shemer Art Center and Museum and Ednel Vihel Center for the Arts.

Tell us about your work in haiku format.
Put paint on stuff. Take paint off.

What artist(s) are you really into right now?
I can’t seem to get enough of Gerhard Richter. When I first started making paintings in 2003 I was obsessed with his photo-realistic and blurred work. Lately I have been really into the abstractions or squeegee paintings.

What are you reading?
The Brilliant History of Color in Art by Victoria Finlay

What's the last TV show, film, or video you watched?
Game of Thrones

If you could collaborate with any artist, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
Matthew Addison. We lived together for two semesters while attending Miami University in Ohio. At the end of our junior year Addison was involved in a near fatal car accident paralyzing the left side of his body. He had to re-invent himself as an artist and has made quite the comeback. We’ve talked about collaborating for years now and you probably would have already seen something from us if his projects weren’t taking off in Brooklyn.

What was the last exhibition you saw and what did you think of it?

This past winter I visited the Barnes Collection at its new location in downtown Philadelphia. The museum experience is unique in that the works are displayed in what Dr. Barnes referred to as “ensembles,” symmetrical wall compositions organized according to the formal principles of light, line, color, and space. There are hundreds of Renoirs, Cézannes, Matisses and Picassos blended and stacked with antique metalwork. Experiencing these ensembles in person is joyfully overwhelming.

Jeff Koons or Marina Abramovi? and why?
Jeff Koons. I can relate to the digital collage aspect of his process for creating the series “Easyfun Ethereal.” A lot of my work is constructed using the same manor of appropriating imagery.

What's the best advice you've ever received?
I remember taking a drawing class where one of the students called out to the instructor, “When will this get easier?” His reply, “Look, if you want a ride, call a taxi.” His message: work harder. When it gets easy, find a new set of challenges.

What are you currently working on?
Aside from experimenting, I am working on a commissioned project depicting the cast from Joe’s Garage, a 1979 rock opera by Frank Zappa.

What's your most valued tool as an artist?
I’ve been using a mahl stick for large work and it’s a game changer. It’s basically a pole to rest your arm against, so you don’t smudge wet paint in the immediate area.

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Mikey Estes
Contact: Mikey Estes