Ben Miller: Gimps, Clowns and Trump

Ben Miller is a compelling artist studying in New York. His paintings are humorous, strange, and sometimes a little obscene, but always a pleasure to look at. Citing German painters as some of his main influences, Miller recently traveled to Berlin and has returned with some unique experiences to put into his work. His technical ability is prevalent but there is a quality in his painting that places a personal style that is easily recognisable. Combined with his movement-filled brush strokes and bright use of colour, Millers paintings ooze energy and a glimpse into the artist’s life. We caught up with the artist for a little conversation.

How long have you been painting? Do you have any major influences?

I’ve been drawing since I could pick up a pencil and I started painting as soon as I could put paint on a piece of paper. Ever since I can remember I’ve loved drawing and painting, but I think I was in eighth grade when I decided that painting was my thing. They had an art award in eighth grade, but I didn’t win the art award in 8th grade and felt cheated by that, but it taught me to keep making art for myself. I also spent a lot of time at the museum of fine arts in Boston when I was younger and I remember being drawn towards the Van Gogh paintings and the impressionist section, and of course the Picasso and Sargent paintings. I would always go back to those paintings and look at how they were painted. When I was older and could finally take the train by myself I would go to the MFA. I wanted to look at the paintings I had already seen a hundred times.

My main influences come from German Expressionism and German painting in the early 20th century. I love the way they depicted everyday life and highlighted how bizarre and ridiculous life actually is. It is simultaneously disturbing and hilarious to look at a George Grosz or an Otto Dix painting. The paintings themselves are disturbing in the way they depict people, but that in itself is the depiction of something true. German painters in general are really good and have an affinity for creating paintings that present everyday life in an absurdly honest manner. Even painters in the 80’s like Jorg Immendorf and Rainer Fetting continued in this way. The humour and disturbing nature of these paintings has been something I’ve been focusing on in a lot of my recent paintings.

Your work provide a striking balance between naturalism and slightly off-ness. How do you tackle this dichotomy? 

My paintings start from narrative fragments I observe or hear. I generate them from stories I hear my friends talking about and the weird interactions I have with people. There is a lot more stake in depicting real life, rather than totally made up events, but even my imaginary narratives are based on elements from real life. That being said, I also get a lot of inspiration from what I read and watch. Within the narratives I like to explore themes of embarrassment, anxiety, and insecurity because our world is such a bizarre and uncomfortable place. But at the same time I try to capture the more farcical and ridiculous instances of life and human interaction because often insecurities are ridiculous. I almost treat my paintings as a way to confront things people might feel anxious about and disarm that anxiety. Recently, I was in Berlin and went to a fetish club, which is already conceptually a wonderful and absurd place. I saw people drinking pee and getting blowjobs next to a pool with naked people on a swing. For many people’s sensibilities, a club like that might seem like an abjectly really gross place but on the other hand people were only there to experience pleasure. I have also been depicting a lot of bathrooms because so many things happen within a bathroom, its a place where you shit, a place where you clean, a place where you have sex, and that is by no means an exhaustive list. It is rife with humour and ridiculousness and strange truth. I don’t see a dichotomy between the representation of real life and absurdity, I think they both flow together and one is never separated from the other.

Pick one painting and describe what is going on in detail.

I usually don’t start a painting with a specific narrative, I feel like having a determined narrative at the start of the process stifles the painting, so I let it develop as the painting progresses. I like to start from sketches that I’ll often refine a couple times before I start a painting. One of my favourite paintings I have done recently is based off a sketch I did of a gimp in a bathroom. So I started to think about that scenario, why a gimp would be in a bathroom and what kind of situation that would cause lead to that. As the painting progressed I started developed this idea to imagine that there was a wealthy widowed woman who is into freaky, kinky things. So she hires young men to fulfil her fantasies, both sexual and platonic. The fantasy in the painting involved the young man meeting the wealthy widow at her desert mansion in New Mexico or Arizona and being led to the bathroom on a leash and where she begins to command him to pee in a glass on top of the toilet, because the woman is germophobic. I imagine that the moment depicted in the painting is the exact moment this young man realized he was in over his head. I ended up adding a lot of little details as the painting progressed to articulate the narrative as it developed. Sometimes they’re also just a lot more specific because they’re based off things that are semi-autobiographical, I’ve been doing a lot more sketches recently of things that are from my life or my friends lives, it raises the stakes for me in a way.

Have you ever experienced any sort of artistic failure that has either been really funny or eye-opening?

Oh yes. I have had many experiences like that. I forget who said it, but someone said you make hundreds of terrible paintings before you make one good painting, and it is so true. Specifically, one painting I did this past fall was made during that minor epidemic when scary clown sightings started popping up all over the country. People were hiding in the woods dressed up as clowns and scaring people - funny stuff. It was also the time when we were all feeling anxious about the election and anticipating the rise of some new fascist state. I started wondering how I could sympathise with clowns again, and what would happen if the new President decided to start a war on circuses and clowns. So I made a painting about the drone bombing of a circus. I thought it would be a hilarious painting, right up my alley, but I ended up hating it. By the time I was done with it I didn’t want to look at it again and I have no idea where it is right now. The painting doesn’t know what it wants to be. It was compositionally very confusing and weird, the figures were really unspecific and the painting was just way too busy and overall it was trying to do too much. It’s kind of funny because people always have told me that say they really like that painting, but I can’t stand it. Even though I hate it, I learned a lot from it.

What is one thing you hope viewers take away from your work? 

I really hope that viewers are seduced by the painting. That they are kind of drawn in by the way it is painted or the visual elements of the painting so that they kind of sit with it. Then, I really want them to be hit over the head by the comedy and the subject matter, so that it either makes them laugh, repulses them, both, or just intrigues them. I think painting is a great medium for absurdity and comedy, but I also like to address the tradition of painting as a way of depicting life in an incredibly unique way and add to that history.

by Amanda Poorvu


Nathan McLaren-StewartComment