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An introduction by David Willis

Benjamin Aitken: The Painter of Contemporary Life

When I think of Benjamin Aitken, I think of “Ben the artist,” or “Ben the painter,” from Melbourne, Australia. He has worn plenty of other labels in his lifetime — delinquent, dero, failed tradie, addict, abuse survivor, convict, queer — and while such various labels may inform his work and different facets of his identity, it is the label of artist that defines him best, for it is in his art that all those myriad labels find their synthesis. And his art is beautiful, in a way that is both contemporary and timeless.

In his 1860 essay “The Painter Of Modern Life” the poet and critic Baudelaire wrote that beauty is never absolute, but rather “inevitably, of a dual composition,” consisting of an “eternal and invariable element which is exceedingly difficult to quantify” on the one hand, and a more obvious “circumstantial element… the epoch, its manners, its morality, its passion.” Considering Ben’s work a century and a half later, this framework still holds water.

It is easy to identify the latter element of Baudelaire’s formulation: for instance, references to cartoon characters such as Donald Duck and Garfield The Cat, and nods to famous artists like Picasso and Lichtenstein appear frequently. However the real beauty in his work does not derive from such bastardised cultural touchstones, worn smooth by repeated touching — on the contrary, the frisson, the depth, the heart-aching beauty in his work is derived from the fusion of the public with the personal, the alchemy of the painter transmuting pain and boredom into inspiration and joy.

Ben is no stranger to pain — the pain of being raised by a strict military father and a cultish pentecostal mother; the pain of having a rare chronic disease eating his joints; the pain of heroin addiction and alcoholism stemming from childhood sexual abuse; and the pain of incarceration for drug dealing and arms possession — but Ben’s work is not didactically about any of those painful experiences. They are simply layered into the work alongside the mass media signifiers and the art history tropes: ambivalent icons of normalcy to which we can all relate, whether ironically or not. Mass murder, war crimes, and intimate family traumas also crop up, and all these things — but especially ambivalence, irony, and the banality of evil — act as potential points of entry into Ben’s art.

His work smacks hard of “the contemporary” because it has the insistent quality of mixed-media to it, even when he is simply putting paint to canvas. Sardonic snippets of text jostle with pop culture amidst gritty self portraits and swathes of gestural abstraction, producing a postmodern bricolage of styles and associations that defies any reductive definition. And when making literal mixed-media works, composed of readymade materials and bold type-face text (a hangover from his days as a billboard painter), he arranges the elements in rectangular wall-hanging grid compositions that read just as much like painting as sculpture. Furthermore, he sometimes incorporates actual paintings into the mixed-media assemblage grids. The slippage runs both ways, as this is a language of palindromes and oxymorons, where images and meanings get doubled or dizzied, as if we were viewing the work after one too many drinks.

The irreducible human spirit crashes headlong into the mundane moral hypocrisies of the day. I’m reminded of the cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s poignant text on the Angelus Novus, a small mono-print he owned by Paul Klee (written in 1940, the same year he killed himself while on the run from the Nazis): “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise… This storm is what we call progress.”

What would Baudelaire or Benjamin see in Ben’s art if they were alive today, I wonder? I like to think that they would take satisfaction in his sardonic eye for culture, recognising in him a latter day urban flanêur, finding the pleasure in the pain of his own particular moment in history: a true painter of contemporary life.

David Willis

Lisbon, January 2024

David Willis is a writer, curator and art advisor from New York. He holds an MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from the School of Visual Arts and a BA in Cultural Anthropology from Columbia University. He is particularly passionate about promoting and showcasing Southeast Asian contemporary art.

David publishes regularly with Art Asia Pacific and Art & Market, and has also worked with The Nguyen Art Foundation, MoT+++, Richard Koh Fine Art, Almine Rech Gallery, Pace Gallery, The Brooklyn Rail and Art Basel. He is currently based in Lisbon, Portugal.

Mahmood Fazal, Investigate journalist, winner of the Walkely Prize for Writing:

In 2021, Aitken pled guilty to trafficking cocaine and ketamine, possessing ammunition, possessing drugs of dependence, and possessing a handgun without a licence. At times Aitken has struggled to make sense of an experience that is tragically common among those who have encountered the criminal justice system: suicidal ideation. At times when he confides in me, I’m ashamed to admit how desensitised I’ve become to the lag experienced by those who have served time in prison. Imprisonment turns full-blooded men hollow; it drains the colour from their view of the world. After all, ‘freedom’ is a tough word to swallow when there are still so many people—including Aitken’s mates and my own—in the trenches of what we ineptly label ‘correctional’ facilities.

His work completely engulfs us and sheds light on the erratic waves of Aitken’s mindscape. They are uncaged paintings, drawings, photos and assemblages, free to deal with the broken thoughts that illustrate the way he thinks, or doesn’t think, or has been made to think.

The images are mutations of himself: cartoonish, personal and imaginary. Entangled in these versions of himself, Aitken is an escape artist drifting from the experience of imprisonment toward a journey of rehabilitation and self-realisation. The works are simultaneously internal and distant; they are real and imagined, dark and colourful, tipsy and focused, tired and pure.

Ben is represented by TARS Gallery, Bangkok.

C.V.

Upcoming:

2024 TBA, Oigall Projects, June|
2024 TBA – November
2025 Solo Exhibition at STARCH, Singapore

Solo Exhibitions (selected)

2022 ‘Blundstone Enema’ PRODUCE GALLERY, opened by Mahmood Fazal
2020 ‘Shooting gallery’ THIS IS NO FANTASY
2020 Do I have to spell it out for you, Town Hall Gallery Commission
2020 Untitled, Rajamangala University of Technology
2019 Ghost Baby, TARS Bangkok
2018 Hard Yakka, Sutton Projects
2018 An artist of some description, Alaska Projects
2018 Circling with in collaboration with Jon Cattapan, Latrobe Art Institute, curated by Dr. Kent Wilson
2016 Alternative Literature is also like Alternative Literature Opened by Prof. Jon Cattapan of the VCA, Bayside Arts & Cultural Centre
2015 Sometimes I feel like killing myself(ies), Opened by Dr. Ashley Crawford
2014 Holy grin, Gallerysmith Projectspace

Group Exhibitions (selected)

2022 Aoteaorea Art Fair, Scott Lawrie Gallery, New Zealand
2022 ‘ORBIT’, THIS IS NO FANTASY (Dianne Tanze & Nicola Stein)
2022 Sensation_22, Scott Lawrie Gallery, New Zealand
2019 Te Tai-O-Rehuha (The Tasman), Scott Lawrie Gallery, New Zealand
2019 ‘The snake eats its tail’, The University of Arizona
2019 International SUMUK workshops – Haenam Arts & Cultural Centre, Korea
2019 ‘Untitled’, Sooyun Art Space, Korea
2019 ‘Gongjae and the artist’s self portrait’, hosted by the Haengchon Cultural Foundation at Haengchon Art Museum, Korea

Residencies

2019 Haengchen Arts & Cultural Centre, Korea
2018 Poh Chang Academy of Art, Thailand
2018 Rajamangala University of Technology, Chiang Mai
2017 Art Vault, Australia 2017
2016 Robin Eley, Studio assistant, Los Angeles

Awards (selected)

2021 Archibald Prize (Finalist)
2020 Archibald Prize (Finalist)
2020 Sir John Sulman Prize (Finalist)
2020 Bayside Acquisitive art prize (Finalist)
2019 Archibald Prize (Finalist)
2019 Semi-finalist Doug Moran National Portrait Prize
2019 Semi-finalist Lester prize, Art Gallery of Western Australia
2019 Highly Commended – Hawkesbury Art Prize
2019 Footscray Contemporary Art Prize (Finalist), collaboration with Jon Cattapan
2018 Tony Fini Foundation Prize for Portraiture, Art Gallery of Western Australia (Winner)
2018 Archibald Prize (Finalist)
2016 R+M McGivern Prize for Text based painting (Finalist)
2016 Archibald Prize (Finalist)
2015 Brett Whitley Travelling Art Scholarship (Semi Finalist)
2015 Hurford Hardwood prize for Portraiture (Finalist)
2015 Bayside Acquisitive Art Prize (Painting) – (Finalist)
2014 Black Swan Prize for Portraiture, WA – (Highly Commended)

Collections (selected)

The Michael and Janet Buxton family collection
Sooyun Art Space, Korea
Lismore Regional Gallery
Rajamangala University of Technology, Thailand
Poh Chang, Academy of Art, Thailand
The Nicholas Foundation
PriceWaterhouseCooper
RMIT University
Future Work Skills Academy, New York
Cato Counsel