In conversation with Ben Howe – by Luke Barrett
Over nearly two decades, Australian artist Ben Howe has carved a reputation for himself globally with his iconic photo-surrealist oil paintings. Those paintings have made their way across the world into galleries and private collections, in the process eclipsing numerous grants, fellowships and international residencies which have been sent his way.
On the cusp of his new solo exhibition ‘Weave’, Ben Howe took precious time out from the studio, several pieces still in situ and on the easel, the paint literally still wet or on the palette or both, awaiting his return. Over several hours, Ben opened up about some of the most private, shocking and captivating aspects of his life story, his artistic skills and creative processes, which he has generously allowed us to share in the following interview by Luke Barrett on behalf of BeinArt Gallery.
Although it is mid-afternoon when we meet, Melbourne’s winter lingers, ensuring a white and charcoal sky. The clouds, like painterly smears of grey, appear stark against the relative fluorescence of an overcast stratosphere.
Inside the bar, Ben Howe is sitting in a corner, partly obscured in the shadows. He cuts a brooding but welcoming figure, alone but at ease: he is already enjoying a drink. A waitress will later leave a tealight and the flicker of its flame will cast shadows which will sway across our table, providing a talking point.
All of this is quite fitting for the internationally-respected Melbourne artist who is renowned for his monochromatic oil paintings which often explore themes of isolation and loneliness through his trade mark photo-surrealism and masterful black-and-white rendering of light and shadows.
Howe’s story is a gripping one. At so many crossroads, he has chosen the road less travelled. Those choices have led him, if not to happiness, to where and to who he is today. He is matter of fact about having sought out adventure in his youth and now, in adulthood, seeking out and confronting personal weakness. Make no mistake though, there is no arrogance here. It is with humility and, I suspect, a degree of unwarranted self-condemnation that he confesses to having made some questionable choices in life. In that regard he observes:
“There are some things that make you stronger. They add colour to your life. But there are others that go a bit far and cause a whole lot of dominoes to fall.”
His life is deserving of an autobiography, one that he once commenced but abandoned because he was not happy with the author’s telling of the story. This reveals something about the critical eye with which he scrutinises all of his work and his pursuit of perfectionism.
Howe is tertiary educated and holds a Masters of Fine Art from RMIT and is a qualified teacher, having taught art and woodwork to high school students. Being highly intellectual, it is obvious that he reflects deeply on his experiences in order to integrate them into his sense of being and his art.
An experience which was as influential as it was harrowing was being kidnapped by a Moroccan drug cartel at the age of 22. Although he is now comfortable discussing the ordeal, Howe self-diagnoses himself as perhaps still suffering a degree of post-traumatic stress.
While back-packing around Europe, Howe ventured south towards Morocco and, while drinking alone, was approached by a local who offered him an opportunity ‘to see the real Morocco’. This was an offer which was too good to refuse for an Australian backpacker. They hailed a taxi, climbed in and travelled for some time, periodically switching taxis and being joined by a rotating cast of motley passengers. Howe realised too late that the other passengers were there to prevent his escape.
There was a moment when the taxi stopped and he found himself in a conversation with other backpackers waiting for a bus. They were the only other travellers he had encountered in Morocco. Perhaps they had a better read of the situation, because they urged Howe to abandon the taxi and to come with them instead, sensing that something was amiss. Fatefully, Howe ignored their encouragement, dismissing the option of bus travel with other foreign travellers as ‘the easy way’. On reflection, he says:
“I felt trapped by my own sensibilities. There was no way I wasn’t going to go further with my abductors, even though I knew it could only end in a bad way.”
Eventually, the taxi and its passengers arrived at a poor village in a remote part of Morocco. It was there that Howe was introduced to the resident drug lord. The extent of his predicament sunk in.
Over four terrifying days, Howe’s kidnappers systematically stole his money, raiding his bank accounts, under threats of violence to himself and his family. Although they would allow him freedom of movement around the village (albeit under the supervision of armed thugs), the consequences of not complying with their demands were gravely clear.
To expedite his co-operation, Howe was marched at gunpoint and shown the already-dug grave where his body would be buried once they had murdered him. To validate the credentials of his kidnappers, Howe was shown the passports of around ten other kidnapped tourists who had apparently suffered a similar fate.
It is remarkable that, even while immersed amongst such adversity, there is still scope for good fortune, of sorts. Fortuitously, Howe avoided being coerced into drug-mule servitude, which had been the final act in his kidnappers’ playbook. Prior to escaping though, his situation had forced his principles and ethics into conflict with his survival instincts. Although the former prevailed, the cognitive dissonance precipitated by the episode had an impact which has stayed with him.
Fearing reprisal, Howe avoided running to the authorities. Without cash, fleeing home to Australia was not an option either. Determined to claw his own way out of the situation, he remained in Europe, enduring periods of homelessness, spending the evenings sleeping on foreign streets, with nowhere to go and no money to get there.
Now he can be philosophical about these experiences.
“Those periods of sleeping rough were pretty wearing. I could never really slip into a deep sleep, as the senses were always primed. Also, it was horrible when the weather was bad. Finding discreet places that were also out of the elements was a lot more difficult than you might think. Looking back though, I’m glad for most of these difficult times, that were largely brought about by my own ignorance. All the discomfort, dirt and anxiety are washed away with the distance of time. I think these kinds of things led to me having more empathy than I otherwise would have had – also an awareness of how easy it is for people to fall once they’ve slipped… and how a city and its machinations can chew people up without a supportive community around them.”
Howe is conscious that the Moroccan incident may have been one of those ‘life is short’ epiphanies and has perhaps served as a catalyst for his art making. His art has evolved dramatically in the period since and he is more driven than ever to create.
Back then, Howe sketched a lot. When he revisits his sketches and photography from that trip, the sketches bring on more nostalgia than the photographs.
In the aftermath of those experiences, his artistic endeavours have pivoted several times. Those endeavours have included a foray into street art in which he pioneered intricate and highly-detailed steam-punk stencils in the years preceding the stencil movement’s ‘big bang’ moment. Howe is philosophical in questioning the timing of his decision to abandon that body of work: who knows where it would have led him had he persevered a little longer and not run out of steam.
Howe even dabbled in film-making for a while, commencing production of a zombie movie. Production was killed at the filming stage and, unlike its characters, has not been resurrected.
Paradoxically, Howe’s experiences of extreme isolation and loneliness – at school, in Morocco or during those homeless periods – have not led him to eschew isolation and loneliness. He neither fears nor embraces them. They find their way into his art: the subject matter, the themes and even the way in which he creates.
Yet these are experiences which for the most part, until now, have been private. Perhaps this has fuelled one of Howe’s philosophical beliefs that ‘it is the things which can’t be seen that are the most interesting’. He adds:
“It’s the device, the ghost, the wind that causes the leaves to blow about that is the real mystery. What drives our curiosity is what lies behind the door, rather than the door itself.”
The emphasis on light and shadow in his work takes on a whole new significance, knowing this. While the casual observer might compliment Howe’s portrayal of light, it would be more apt to commend his use of shadows. Shadows are the absence of light and that which cannot be seen: therein lies the mystery that Howe believes is most interesting to contemplate.
All of us are followed through life by our respective pasts and histories, like a shadow which we can never escape. Sometimes our shadow can fall behind us, out of sight and out of mind – but there nonetheless. At other times our shadow can loom large and fall across the path ahead of us.
Light is concurrently both cause and antidote for any shadow. In this regard, Howe quotes Leonard Cohen who famously quipped, in the lyrics for his song Anthem, that ‘there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’.
If the shadows of Howe’s experiences have left him cracked, then they are also responsible for the light that shines through, powering his creativity today.
This theme can be seen in his ‘surface variation’ body of work, which I crudely referred to as his ‘slice and dice’ paintings. (Howe was half-amused by the clumsy faux pas.) The subjects in these paintings have literally been cracked apart so that Howe can capture the light shining in and the tell-tale shadows which are cast in the process.
A broken-hearted musician might later find some consolation in the album’s worth of material which they can mine from the aftermath of a break up. And so it is for Howe, who finds that ‘great art doesn’t come from a happy place, it comes from darkness and adversity’.
Co-incidentally, Howe’s creative gifts extend to music and over the years he has played in a number of local bands, such as Kicking the Black Dog, and pursued a number of solo projects. He has been instrumental in recording around thirteen albums, but he humbly points out that none of them were ever officially released by a label. Howe plays guitar, is a vocalist and has an interest in programming and producing.
Like a beautiful sounding song which also has strong lyrics, Howe’s paintings are based on deeply thought-out concepts that have been conceived well in advance. He jokes that there is a thesis worth of ideas and intended meanings behind every painting. Before even picking up a brush, he develops the messages and emotions which he is wanting to convey through the shadows in his paintings.
When the Foo Fighters’ eponymous first album was recorded, Dave Grohl famously played every instrument on the studio recording. There is a touch of this in Howe’s art-making process. He sands his own panels and stretches his own canvasses. Often he sculpts from clay the subjects and objects which will feature in his paintings. After sculpting, Howe then photographs the sculptures. Finally, he paints. It is an impressive array of artistic skills that he brings to bear: the art world’s equivalent of a multi-instrumentalist. Howe jokes that Grohl must have done it because he was a perfectionist.
Although Howe’s paintings may appear to be stand-alone pieces, there is a common thread that secretly connects many of them, beyond their thematic and aesthetic commonalities. Every clay sculpture which Howe has ever sculpted for one of his paintings has been sculpted from the same block of clay. Every one of those sculptures was quickly photographed before the clay could dry so that the sculpture could be collapsed and returned to the block of clay from whence it came. For appreciators of Howe’s work, there might be a sense of loss and tragedy in this seemingly needless destruction of those sculptural pieces – any of which could be collectable pieces of art in their own right. However, it is not done to be mercenary, but rather out of sentimentality. In a very literal and deliberate way, Howe’s artistic process means that each sculpture-based painting contains the artistic genetic material of every sculpture-based painting that has come before it. Howe smiles as he explains his thinking. For him, this tradition shares a similar charm to the old family bread-making tradition of passing down sourdough starter as an heirloom to each subsequent generation, so that future generations can make sourdough from the same sourdough cultures which were first cultivated long ago by their ancestors.
The discussion turns to Howe’s upcoming ‘Weave’ exhibition with BeinArt Gallery. Howe has relocated to the seaside town of Mount Eliza, 48 kilometres from Melbourne, while he prepares for the exhibition. For a moment, one senses a wave of exhaustion wash across his expression. Howe works on a large scale and this demands a substantial time commitment to create the number of pieces that comprise a solo exhibition. In typical fashion, he foreshadows what we can expect from this next series of paintings in deeply considered terms.
“I wanted this series of paintings to be full of symbolism and mystery. It was my aim to create a poetic and deceptively simple imagery that allows for the viewer to go as deep as they need to.”
“Although the works themselves simultaneously reference both world events and the rituals of contemporary existence, they’re fused with subconscious echoes. They are triggered by personal sentiments and deeply set memories.”
“I used gothic motifs, fairy tales and archaic tropes to explore the themes of this series; to blur the lines between what is considered the ‘make believe’ and what we believe. Together with the monochrome pallet, these could serve to evoke a nostalgia for another time or the possibility of no time”
“I approached this series during a period of unexplained melancholy, perhaps brought on by the futility and tragedy of current world events. But I wanted to approach the artwork with the tranquillity that comes from walking through a cemetery.”
Some of the photography for the exhibition’s promotional materials show Howe working on one of his new paintings in Mount Eliza, alongside his old compact disc collection. With a sense of nostalgia, we reminisce over an era when it was de rigueur to curate a personal collection of compact discs and arrange them in an order of which even John Cusack’s character in Hi-fidelity would have approved. That was a time of album cover art, lyric booklets and bonus discs of rare material. Howe shares that, having purchased an album, he would deprive himself until the evening before listening to the new acquisition. He would anxiously spend the remainder of the day looking forward to the moment when he could finally sit in bed, open the album and start reading the album booklet. Even then, he would only allow himself to listen to rations of three songs at a time, to extend the thrill of the experience of the new album. Back then, he could not always afford to purchase the album and, if he could procure of a copy of the album, he would redraw the album cover art by his own hand: an early sign of his artistic potential. Some of those hand-drawings would still be amongst his compact disc collection.
The photographer complained that the compact disc collection was in frame – nobody has compact discs anymore – so Howe was told to move the collection out of the light and into the corner.
There are so many interesting things in the shadows which cannot be seen.
Ben Howe’s ‘Weave’ exhibition opens on 23 September 2017 at BeinArt Gallery in Brunswick, Victoria.