Ben Jamie is a contemporary artist, born in Nottingham and now based in London. We caught up with him in his Hackney Wick studio for an in-conversation between Ben and his gallerist Andy Wicks, Director of Castor where they discussed the roots of his painting practice, career highlights to date and the alchemy of painting with a limited palette.
Ben has been a practicing artist since graduating with a BA at University of Gloucestershire in 2002, but it wasn’t until he enrolled on the Turps Art School between 2014 – 16 that he developed the distinctive style he’s now known for. Turps is an alternate Art School based in South London with peer lead tuition from leading contemporary painters. It has a strong record of producing artists who go on to make an impact within the London and the wider art world.
Ben’s earlier paintings looked to the edgelands of our cities, liminal space rarely considered and designed for utility over form. His palette has often set his works apart with day-glo colours alongside pastels. Over time his work became more abstract and looked inwards for inspiration, whether from lucid dreams, memories or psychedelic experiences in his younger years. During this period the paintings manifested themselves as cave like voids and science fiction landscapes. Recently he’s embraced a more figurative approach cropping and sampling elements of historic paintings into new compositions.
Over the past few years his work has been seen far and wide from museum shows to exhibitions in New York to Korea. For an artist who continues to innovate and push his visual language forward we’re excited to see what the future holds!
You studied your BA Fine Art at University of Gloucester which I know had a rather traditional idea of arts education. Even with your more abstract works there is a strong sense of draftsmanship which shines through and your material choices seem rooted in art history. Could you talk about how this training has influenced your choices as an artist?
Whilst studying, I rejected the more traditional approach to painting, finding it frustrating to learn old fashioned methods, but have since come to appreciate the grounding I received. Most of the studio time in the first year was dedicated to traditional methods and techniques, which has set me up well in my studio practice. I enjoy utilising this knowledge, and feel that it is possible to experiment with freedom, whilst still holding onto the craft of being a painter. The smell, and feel of the flax, beeswax, charcoal and oil paint, are really important in my working environment.
You were a prize winner of the 2016 John Moores Painting Prize, which is considered one of the highest accolades for a painter in the UK. What did this award mean to you and do you feel it opened your work up to a wider audience?
It felt like a really big deal at the time to be one of the prize winners as I was still studying on the Turps studio program and finding my feet. It was great to be part of an incredible show in a museum and it served as a great opportunity to meet my peers. It was both an exciting and challenging time personally and it offered a great distraction and gave me a huge boost of confidence.
The John Moores Painting Prize is renowned as being one of the best showcases for contemporary painting, so the exposure really helped put me on peoples radar for the first time. In 2018 I had my first international solo exhibition with Shrine in New York followed by a group show in Korea in 2019, featuring in The John Moores I’ve no doubt had a part to play in such curators coming across my work.
Your work has long referenced historic figurative painting albeit initially abstractly. With your 2021 exhibition 'And Other Withered Stumps of Time’ at Castor you embraced a more direct figuration with references to works from William Blake and Gustave Doré. Could you talk more about your relationship to painting by the Old Masters and how you use these in your practice?
Rooting my work in the more traditional art history bracket has allowed me to view my paintings in a different context - existing between the past, present and future. I don’t wish my work to act as a reflection on reality, instead to invoke allegorical themes. My influences were maybe hidden behind abstraction previously, but I felt there was a certain freedom in allowing these historical inspirations to come to the fore in the context of the show at Castor.
I am not seeking to make copies of existing work, but attempting to take something of the compositional elements and decontextualising the themes to make them more personal to me. Source images serve as a framework to hang the more abstracted passages on, and should not be read as simulacra.
Alongside embracing figuration you also switched palette making each painting from a very limited number of colours. To me there’s a certain alchemy in this approach which goes against a more contemporary way of working where you start with a broad spectrum of pre mixed colour tubes. Could you tell us about this new way of working and how you see this fitting in with a contemporary visual language?
I happened on the Zorn palette by chance, and it seemed to click with the way my painting was developing. I use Cadmium Red Light, Yellow Ochre, Ivory Black and Titanium White. Although there are limitations in terms of what colours I can mix, I have found a freedom in the placement of colours, as they all work tonally together. Utilising ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ colours, give my paintings a certain dynamic, which is hard to experience digitally.
I have always felt like I am slightly going against current trends, and I feel my methodology is the antithesis of the way the art world is moving - by slowing everything down, I find an almost meditative experience when working. It is quite a romantic approach to painting, which utilises my training, without feeling like I need to fit in with a particular scene.
Something very distinctive in the work is your use of heavy charcoal outlines which reveal and obscure in equal measure. Each section seems to hold its own contrasting colours between the ground and foreground application. How do you see this technique in terms of the overall reading of the image?
I feel this method of working allows me to work fairly intimately on large scale paintings. The breaking up of the space allows parts of the image to hover within the picture plane, and interact with similarly coloured areas. I am very interested in optical illusions, and how perception is almost pieced together from what the eye has seen and what the brain thinks it has seen.
Often paintings are reworked several times, and the charcoal serves as a way of having both fast and slow movements / energies within the same painting.
Viewing your paintings in person holds a particular rewarding experience which I see as being due to the textured surface. Recently you've been working on flax (a course weave fabric) and employee impasto in area whilst leaving the flax raw in others. What is it about the surface quality which interests you?
I feel it is very important to experience my work up close, as I don’t feel they act purely as images, but rely on the interplay between colour and texture. Some of the surface is heavy and matte, whereas other areas are lightly painted - I want the images to almost shimmer in places. The overall effect means your gaze either speeds up or slows down when observing the work.
I am keen to produce paintings with a focus on craftsmanship, so choice of quality materials are very important to my work.
Do you see a cross over between your output as an artist and your wardrobe/ dress sense?
The studio is a place to express yourself away from judgement, where mistakes can be made and worked over. I suppose like painting, with time you develop a clearer understanding of yourself and what you like to wear. I tend to dress in block colours, and limit my palette to a few, usually autumnal, colours, much like my paintings - but with pyjamas I want to wear something bolder.