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You’re so vain you probably think these paintings are about you.

@ Scott Lawrie Gallery, 25 February – 18 March 2023

scottlawrie.com

'Untitled', 2023

Synthetic polymer paint, ink, crayon, chalk, mixed media on 8 panels. 8 panels at 1500H x 750mm. Total artwork 1500H x 6000mm.

'A (Opiates Series)', 2023

Acrylic and mixed media on canvas. 500H x 500mm.

'E (Opiates Series)', 2023

Acrylic and mixed media on canvas. 500H x 500mm.

'I (Opiates Series)', 2023

Acrylic and mixed media on canvas. 500H x 500mm.

'O (Opiates Series)', 2023

Acrylic and mixed media on canvas. 500H x 500mm.

'P (Opiates Series)', 2023

Acrylic and mixed media on canvas. 500H x 500mm.

'S (Opiates series)', 2023

Acrylic and mixed media on canvas. 500H x 500mm.

'T (Opiates Series)', 2023

Acrylic and mixed media on canvas. 500H x 500mm.

There are seven small works in the show that spell out OPIATES. ‘I’ve always struggled with sobriety,’ says their creator, Melbourne-based Benjamin Aitkin, ‘and I remember making this works at 50 x 50 based on Scott’s floor plan. So I was trying to think of a 5 letter word as I’ve always  had a lot of text in my work over the years … I wanted it to say sober. But I was two letters short. Then I was high on ketamine and thought of the word sobriety, and realised it was too long. It seemed profound to me at the time.

‘I want to be sober but I’m two letters short, and sobriety is just too long…’

Ben’s paintings are equal parts lyrical and brutal in their anarchic formalism. They seem to share a lineage with the William S. Burroughs ‘cutup’ – a mechanical method of juxtaposition in which Burroughs literally cuts up passages of prose by himself and other writers and then pastes them back together at random. There is a relationship there via dada and punk, and the New York school of the 1980s (David Wojnarowicz, for example): a suturing together of graffiti neo-expressionism and the grungier side of pop art into an urban postmodern bricolage. Ben is somewhere between enfant terrible and eldritch abomination.

For Burroughs it was all tied up with humanity’s addiction to addiction – to drugs, to sex, to power – and he sought to analyse it by deconstructing the way language and images, the mental constructs people use to survive and adapt, lock us into conventions of thinking, speaking and perceiving. By cutting it all up and putting it back together in an impersonal, random way, he was trying to free himself from these instrumentalities of control. It’s comparable to other attempts to break free in the arts, from action painting, surrealism and happenings to aleatory music, structuralism, or even the I-Ching (at least the way Philip K. Dick used it to generate his fiction). Pollock’s indexical dribble is a point of reference, as is Jean-Michele Basquiat’s bravura sgraffito and Stuart Davis’ anti-minimalist energy.

To my eye, that’s in the neighbourhood of what Ben is aiming at as well. Fragmentary ghosts from Picasso, Gareth Sansom, Philip Guston, the Hairy Who, and the crispier bits of Francis Bacon flicker through the dark forest of Ben’s nec/romantic imagination. But it’s not all gloom and rage. There’s a lot of playfulness in the way that Georges Bataille was playful – wryly ironic, surgically strategic, borderline scatological. The whole Howl’s Moving Castle of it is shambling off to Bethlehem to be born, if it doesn’t simply explode or disintegrate on the way. It comes with a way of processing the world common to society’s survivors, falling back on double-edged jokes and a deeply personal grand guignol of violence, anger, fear, loss, addiction and compulsion that either ends up in the studio or the grave.

In some ways Ben’s style is a call back to the demotic poor boy white trash slacker underbelly aesthetic of the early to mid-1990s. The exhibition Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 1992 sums it up – artists like Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Jim Shaw, Raymond Pettibon and Manuel Ocampo. Similar things were happening here in Aotearoa, brought together in the touring exhibition Hangover in 1995-1996, which included Tony de Lautour, Bill Hammond, and Ronnie van Hout among others.

It was happening everywhere, but Ben isn’t milking Gen X nostalgia. It’s a reflection of his reality. Some artists that Ben acknowledges as influences on his work are George Condo, Gareth Sansom, Diena Georgetti, Lars-Gunner Nordstrom, and Carmen Herrera, aligning him with some particularly Australian veins of surrealism, neo-expressionism and art brut.

Ben has talent, technique and drive well in excess of other artists in their early 30s. Drugs and living fast and louche are ever-present themes in the art. I want to avoid expressions like ‘bad boy artist’ – because that’s a tired modernist cliché to excuse bad behaviour. There’s an element of theatricality to it. He has the words ‘drug money’ tattooed on his right palm and shows off with guns online Ben has a history -drugs, crime, jail time – and as anyone can see from his paintings, and he was arrested on drugs charges in 2020. He’s not asking for your pity or redemption. I’m just going to quote his lawyer: ‘Clearly the offences are serious, I’m not going to submit otherwise but he’s not staring down the barrel of double figures [jail time], if I can put it crudely.’ It is what it is and an ongoing struggle. Ben’s not sitting around feeling sorry for himself.

This is uncompromising, uncomfortable, yet compelling art. Somehow impersonal, yet a deeply personal interrogation of self. Surface tension keeps the contradictory, competing and manic farrago in check. It’s a testament to Ben’s virtuosity that a single wrong compositional move could bring the whole lot tumbling down like a Jenga tower. As Walt Whitman wrote in ‘Song of Myself 51’:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

It’s very human art – humans are a seething mass of contradiction. Like Ben’s paintings we want to find meaningful connection while trying to keep our self-deceits and inconsistencies under control in a unified front. We are a different self from second to second when we bother to wake up at all, which is a bit Sufi by way of Gurdjieff. We’re grappling with an existential frenzy of capitalism, nihilism, absurdism, and creativity. Ben brings that out visually, contrasting painterly gestures with cartoonish figuration and 1960s Batman-esque impact fonts. These link up with Ben’s diverse career: a sign writing apprenticeship, working in large digital format billboard companies, which probably explains the large scale of a lot of his paintings. There’s compassion there too. It’s all rolled up in a ball that has reached critical mass and momentum.

That mass and momentum manifest in constructive intentions. Ben co-founded the Melbourne gallery Nicholas Projects and is a frequent collaborator with Jon Cattapan. He was awarded a highly commended place in the 2014 Black Swan Prize for Portraiture and was selected for the 2014 Melbourne NotFair art fair. He has four times been a finalist in the Archibald Prize and was the winner of the Tony Fini Foundation Prize at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. He has shown with at the Haengchen Art Museum in China, the University of Arizona, and had a major solo show at TARS gallery in Bangkok in 2019.

The human condition is innately messy, but that’s where the most important art comes from.