Saturday, April 26, 2014

Morning Carnival

Of course I'd be attracted to art that begins with the pages of books.

I knew about Benjamin Frey's new show, “Modern Myths and Metaphors,” at Glave Kocen Gallery because I'd interviewed the artist for a piece in Style Weekly, but we hadn't met in the flesh yet.

Today's artist's talk afforded me the opportunity to see the show and meet him, despite its unfortunate timing: 11:30 on a Saturday morning.

The sacrifices I make for art.

Strolling through the gallery, I was falling hard for Benjamin's work, charmed by the book page backgrounds and moody drawings on top of them. My only disappointment was that I'm too poor to be buying art, much as I'd love to own one of his pieces.

No one ever matches their voice, including Benjamin, but he sounded like every bit the artist from an artistic family that he is ("Dad always had a painting on the easel") once we got to talking.

I asked if I'd gotten everything right in my article and he said that while I'd said he was from Staunton (because the press release said that), he was actually from Buena Vista, a point his Buena Vista friends noted but as he laughed, "No one on this side of the mountains would know the difference."

True that. During the talk when gallerist B.J. Kocen introduced him as from Staunton, Benjamin winked at me in the audience and we both thought, "No, from Buena Vista."

Rather than a talk, the main event was more of a conversation between B.J. and Benjamin, who recalled coming to Richmond for an oil change and cruising the local gallery scene for possible places to show.

The last place he'd stopped was Glave Kocen and less than a year later, here he was having a show and one with red dots on many of the works after a very successful opening.

He talked about working as a bookbinder in college and again at a prestigious bookbinder in NYC, where he refused to throw away the end papers from books being repaired, instead saving them for art projects

Using pages from pre-1910 books, often from antique encyclopedias and schoolbooks because he finds the typefaces interesting, he collages layers of them onto the canvas to build up texture before using lithographer's crayons and watercolor pencils to create large-scale drawings on top.
The drawings are intricate and dynamic, conjuring up a mostly monochromatic world of Ferris wheels, elephants balanced on balls, carousels, acrobats and early attempts at flight. A separate series focused on sepia-toned buildings and trains.

What I hadn't been able to see in all the online images of his work was how each one had, in addition to the random collaged pages, a specific page or two chosen to complement the subject matter.

So an image of an elephant might have a map of Africa or a drawing of the Flatiron building had a treatise on mortar. It was a striking part of the composition in person and one I'd missed by seeing his work digitally while we chatted on the phone.

But then, art isn't meant to be seen on a computer screen.Art this striking is meant to be admired in a gallery and when I'm lucky, it's a gorgeous day like today and the gallery door is wide open with the smell of warm, Spring air wafting in.

Definitely worth being up early for.

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