Ben Banville, a Life in Art
Jan. 22 - Feb 22, 2018
Gallery Talk & Reception
- Wed. Feb. 7th CANCELLED DUE TO INCLEMENT WEATHER
RESCHEDULED for: Wed. Feb 14th
RESCHEDULED for: Wed. Feb 14th
11am - 1pm, talk begins at noon
Evening Reception: Thurs. Feb. 8th, 5:30 - 7:30PM - UNCHANGED
The Taber Art Gallery is open to the public and located through the HCC Campus Library lobby in the
Donahue Bldg. Hours: Mon. - Thurs. 10am - 6pm during regular school sessions.
Poste Nébuleux is a comprehensive retrospective honoring the life and art of Bernard Banville
(b. February 4, 1950 Hauterive, Quebec; d. January 22, 2017 Ashby, MA). Musician, photographer, object and image-maker, Ben was an extraordinary talent, a contagious wit, and a generous friend. Ben lived from the center of his art—a continuous, indivisible personal mythology that animated his trickster spirit, and imbued his life with passionate meaning. A long-time resident of the Pioneer Valley, Ben’s art was exhibited widely throughout the area over the last thirty years, culminating in his profound and moving sculptural installations commemorating the Holocaust, which were centerpieces for large group exhibits in the thriving Holyoke art scene.
The works included in Poste Nébuleux span almost 40 years: from early Dada-inspired mail art, to visionary drawings of erotic apocalypse, to the digital paintings, assemblages and installation documentation of his mature work. They are accompanied by the encaustics that were the last pieces Ben produced. The artworks in the exhibition come from the collections of André Banville, Dennis Banville, Isabella Dell’ Olio, Dean Nimmer, Eileen Roif, Don and Marcia Wheeler, and Christopher Willingham.
The show is curated by Christopher Willingham, Adjunct Professor of Visual Arts at Holyoke Community College.
Image: Transubstantiation, 2003, 19’ x 13’, digital painting
This Gallery talk was given by Christopher Willingham at the Taber Gallery on February 14, 2017:
The poet Wallace Stevens wrote: “The way through the world/ Is more difficult to find than the way beyond it” (Reply to Palpini). This is what I would like to talk about today: art as a way through the world, a way through life. And my great friend, Ben Banville will be my guide.
First, I want to thank everyone for coming to this exhibition. I also want to express my gratitude to the people that helped make this possible through their trust and love, the generous loan of artworks, exhibition space and time: Eileen Roif, Ben’s fiancée; Dennis Banville and Andre Banville, Ben’s brothers; Don and Marcia Wheeler; Isabella Dell’Olio; Dean Nimmer; Laurie Goddard at the Echo Gallery in Shelburne Falls; and Amy Johnquest from the Taber Gallery here at HCC. This is the second and larger of two exhibits that I’ve organized for Ben’s work since his unexpected death in January of 2017. Many people have congratulated me for doing these shows for Ben, commending me for my generosity. Of course, I appreciate the sentiment, but I feel I can’t rightly take credit for it. Almost immediately after being flattened by the shock of Ben’s death, my first thought was, “There needs to be a show, and I need to do it.” Because I felt compelled, I think it’s not so much generosity as selfishness on my part; I don’t want my friend to be gone—that such huge humanity, in all its manifestations, could just pass into oblivion isn’t acceptable. After gathering together as much of Ben’s remaining work as I could, I’ve lived with it, and surrounded myself with it in my studio, clearly trying to keep his presence in my life as fresh as possible. So in a very real way, this exhibition is an act of rescue. But of what, and for whom? After the incalculable loss of my friend, what disturbed me most was the thought of all of his work subsiding eventually into the background, becoming, finally, neglected and invisible. Artists, especially, must live with this fear, because we are intimately entwined with the impermanent in everything we see and in all we attempt to draw out of it. As the writer and art critic John Berger has observed: “The ephemeral is not the opposite of the eternal. The opposite of the eternal is the forgotten” (From A to X).
Since it’s not within my power to raise the dead, I’ve done the best I could to present a vivid memory. And since Ben exists now only in the memories of those of us who knew and loved him, and in the artifacts he created, my other concern is that his memory and intentions won’t need rescuing from my descriptions and reconstructions. The poet John Ashbery said, “The worse your art is, the easier it is to talk about” (interview with Kenneth Koch, 1965). I don’t quite fully agree with that, but he has a point: excessive description can crowd out meaningful expression. This is another reason why I want to focus mostly on Ben’s art as a process of engaging with life, not so much on the details of the works themselves. As we teachers are fond of saying, “I can explain it for you, but I can’t understand it for you.” So, then, artists can imagine worlds for us, but we have to take the leap of faith to inhabit them, and that is always on the terms of the work itself.
To be creative is to take a leap of faith, is to take chances. We often ask when we take chances, “What can I get out of this?” when, in fact, the real question has to do with what those experiences get us out of—what obligations and untoward possibilities they relieve us of. (Adam Phillips, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life). Making a meaningful project of one’s life, even when it falls short of the ideal, always includes the possibility that we have gotten out of something worse, and have gotten away with it. I think to make art is always in some way to undertake this act of rescue.
Loss and frustration are what make us inventive and resourceful. If it is only when we find someone that we can begin to miss them, then it must also be true that when we lose someone we love, only then do we truly begin to see them, to know them, to experience their presence permeating our lives fully. Art and memory are our valiant challenges against the relentless undertow of disappearances (John Berger, The Sense of Sight, “Drawn to That Moment”). To this extent, this show is about an aesthetics of loss, and an aesthetics of love—and it is this, I think, that drove much of Ben’s work. Nietzsche famously said:
“To those human beings who are any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities—I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not—that one endures” (The Will to Power).
This is what I really want to emphasize: the integrity of Ben’s commitment to being an artist. And the fact that, impressive though it is, it isn’t a matter of his having sustained a practice for fifty years; it’s that the practice sustained him—to the point where the division between living his life and being an artist was an irrelevant distinction. To be an artist, one has to be available to the world at all times. One has to be willingly susceptible to experience in a way that inevitably opens one up to great pain as well as inspiration and insight. (Yes; I am saying that one has to suffer to make art.) To be without vulnerability isn’t to overcome helplessness; it is to be beyond help. Greatness, in life, as in art, comes when we embrace our limitations and risk going beyond them. Ben was a great-souled man, and if I mythologize, it is fitting because it is heroic to live as an artist. I’ll say that again: it is heroic to live as an artist—especially now. Heroes, in art as in life, inspire us to continue in the same spirit where they leave off; they release our potential to pursue a process of becoming. This process never ends. Our culture is scarcely any longer capable of producing heroes. We produce plenty of villains, and victims (and no, I don’t mean that ironically) and superficial idols that seduce us into stupor. “The function of the idol is the exact opposite of the hero,” writes John Berger; “The idol is self-sufficient; the hero never is… The idol is based on the appearance of perfection; but never on the striving towards it” (Permanent Red). Heroism is in the struggle. We inhabit an historical moment of increasing procedural overdetermination in an urgent attempt to construct a world in which there is no longer anything we do not “get,” even if it is something—or someone—we don’t want (Adam Phillips, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life). Hungry for meaning, we gorge on dumbed-down definitions, and crass categorical distinctions. This is a trivializing impulse that divides and diminishes us, and is always about control and exchange. Art is about experience. It enlarges our humanity and connects us in a shared engagement with the world. To have an experience, you have to surrender to it, become part of it. The ancient Greeks had a word, enthousiasmos—which didn’t mean just to be quite excited about something, it meant to be taken by it, transformed by it. This often isn’t pleasant, but creativity doesn’t come from comfort. To be an artist isn’t simply to be a maker of things; it is to be a maker of worlds.
What can I say about Ben’s work that isn’t art critical spin, or just a shuffling out of flat facts? That he spent a decade or more as part of a Fluxus-inspired collective that exchanged mail art collages and documents of absurd anti-art pranks—like mailing a roadkill rooster; that he channeled his fantasies—both prurient and paranoid—into visionary images of cosmic sex and death (every good artist does this, by the way); that Ben’s time caring for a schizophrenic man broken by the experience of WWII, and Ben’s later friendship with a Lithuanian Jewish artist who survived the Kaiserwald concentration camp, but lost most of her family, inspired what would become his mature work—a sustained and unflinching meditation on the horrors of the inhumanity that always threatens to overwhelm us, requiring us to seek refuge, to create new identities and take up residency in the personal mythology and private language of an invented redemption. “Originality is what they talk about in art schools,” Ben wrote in his last sketchbook, “endurance is what we talk about in our studios.”
All artworks are snapshots of process—the process of making the one artwork that is one’s life. So I want to say there is only one artwork in this exhibit, and it is not here, even while we can trace its trajectory through this arrangement of artifacts. This slippage between material object and the content of the work is the ontology of art. Zona was Ben’s trickster alter-ego, a shifting twin that doubled his movement in the space of his work and his life—his work as his life—splitting engagement into action and reflection, the cosmic and the atavistic, the trauma and the transcendence. The trickster’s job is to slip between, to split things open, break them apart and put them back together in new and unexpected arrangements. Tricksters reshape the world by debasing it through loyal opposition; they rearticulate the cosmos through loving contradiction. It comforts and amuses me to think that Ben got away with being here even after he’s gone. (After all, what is here, but there, without a “t”? as Ben might well have said.)
So what can I say about my dear friend that will reveal something of who he was? That he could shake music out of anything with strings; that he was a great cook; that he was sometimes overwhelmed by rising tides of childhood fright; that he almost drowned in his studio and lost most of his artwork when Irene was washing away whole buildings in Shelburne Falls in 2011; that he tried to resuscitate another schizophrenic client who killed himself using duct tape Ben had given him for an art project an hour before; that he was one of a handful of people with whom I could get spontaneously lost in laughter; that he engaged with my son with more affection and imagination than my friends who are fathers themselves; that, once, after I complained about not having been to the beach in over 10 years, he called me up one morning a few days later and said, “Get ready; we’re going to see the ocean;” that when he would crash at my studio, he would routinely wake me—and himself— in the middle of the night with the loudest, longest farts I’ve ever heard. (The things we miss about those we love…)
Ben’s last sketchbook entry was a wobbled outline of a blank rectangle entitled: Empty Category; below which was written a quote from Leonard Cohen’s song, The Future: “Love’s the only engine of survival.” Ben’s last email to me was a YouTube link to Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker. Reflecting on this a few weeks ago, I thought, “No, I don’t: I want it lighter—I want my friend back.” But later, I thought perhaps Ben was right. I do want it darker, because the darker it gets, the more light I have to make. I don’t subscribe to supernatural beliefs about an afterlife, or metaphysical forces that affect the material world. But, as an artist and a writer, I am obliged to notice coincidences and not only take them seriously, but squeeze as much meaning from them as I can. So when I recently reflected on Ben sending me the song, You Want It Darker, and then when I woke up the next day to install this show and the power went out in my house literally the instant I sat up in bed in the morning, and then when I went to dinner that night after putting up the show and the lyrics playing in the restaurant when I first walked through the door were, “I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon…” I know I’ve found a map to something, somewhere. Being lost, or having loss, is what makes us inventive, is what makes us pursue a process of discovery, of finding a way through the world. As I repeatedly tell my students, the true goal of art is to find a way to lose your way; which, of course, is a sublimated way of telling them to get lost.
“Maps can work, at least if we are desperate enough, just by being maps,” says the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips (On Balance, “Negative Capabilities”). They need not point the way to where we think we want to go. Any object of desire can be a map. It can give direction even without us knowing exactly what it is. We don’t need a map of where we are, or where we were, or even where we wish to be; we just need one to offer some sense of direction, to move us along. Creativity is a kind of willed vertigo, of not knowing which way is up: art may not stabilize our experience of the world, but it somehow keeps us stumbling through it. But art liberates us from loss only when we submit ourselves to chance. We can resent our fate, or we can become curious about it. Most of life is simply what happens, and art is simply a way of making it all more bearable. Another way of saying this is that in art, it doesn’t matter where you’re going as long as you’re on your way.
Poste Nebuleux—I know you’ve been wondering—means Nebulaeic Station. It originates in Ben’s cosmic mythology and is how he referred to his home in Ashby, where he lived for just a few short years before he died. A station is a place to occupy: it can describe our status in the world, or where we do our work; it can be a point of transition, a place where we stop or start. Nebulaeic refers to clouds of interstellar gas that mark the death, or the birth, of a star. And the stars, of course, help us navigate the universe, they form a map that allows us to know our place in the world. The scholar Lewis Hyde, in his remarkable book, Trickster Makes This World, writes:
“How complicated are the markers over graves! They stand for loss and for memory. They are boundary markers between the living and the dead. Sometimes they remind us that there is no passage back from that other world, and sometimes they hint that the gate is open if only one can find the gate-man…
I am grateful to Ben for many things, but especially for sharing with me his way through the world. He has been, and will always be, one of the stars I steer by.
“There is a difference between seeing the world and painting it, and painting to see the world,” Ben wrote. Contemplation has no endpoint; there is no object, no outcome, just an engagement—one that may endure even when we ourselves are gone, and can call across that unreachable space to draw on those who remain. This is why art is heroic.
Ben was my great friend, my brother, and my hero. What an honor. I am reminded of the painter Willem De Kooning’s words upon learning of the death of his friend, the artist Arshile Gorky in 1948:
“I am glad it is about impossible to get away from his powerful influence. As long as I keep it with myself I’ll be doing alright. Sweet Arshile, bless your dear heart.”
So, then: Sweet Ben, bless your dear heart.