The less you fill your mind with the trappings of advertising and bad television,
the more space you have in your brain for things of value.
For over ten years Australian artist Ben Frost is stimulating our social consciousness with his confrontational paintings, which challenge norms and values of Western culture through visually stunning attacks on consumerism. And while his art - usually a mash-up of collage-techniques, sign writing, photorealistic paintings, graffiti and popular characters - more often than not is very impressive in scale as well, he took a much more minimalistic approach for his latest series “The Packaging Paintings“ where iconic characters from the world of cartoons and comics are put in a very different context by painting them on found cardboard boxes, food wrappers and pharmaceutical boxes. Frost was taking a break from painting murals in Queensland and preparing shows that are scheduled in Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco later this year to answer some questions for Lodown.
Ben, you’ve been exhibiting your work for over a decade already… would you say that over the years your position towards consumer culture has changed? Or is it even more disenchanting to see how doomed we all are, even though these days we're fully aware of being manipulated nonstop?
'Advertainment' has grown so big that watching a television commercial is often as rewarding as the content of the programs we're watching. Advertising is the engine that drives media-based capitalism, and the internet and our TV screens are the means of propagating what can be seen as false concepts of consumer 'choice.'
Look at Facebook for example - it was once a social-media network, and now it's become a forum for advertisers to experiment on us. I increasingly get the feeling that we are all just participants in a grand market research study, rather than individuals - with individual things to say.
It used to be that we had become desensitised to sex and violence, now it's advertising that has seeped into our every day acceptable consciousness. It's difficult to escape completely, but the way I like to think about it, is the less you fill your mind with the trappings of advertising and bad television, the more space you have in your brain for things of value.
Please tell me a bit about how your latest series - the “Packaging Paintings“ - came together.
When I was at art college I studied performance art, video, and installation. I was always more interested in questioning things, and painting being such a traditional medium, wasn't something I was very interested in. At some point I got frustrated with trying to be avant-garde and then flipped completely into painting, where I started questioning surfaces and means of painting. My early works were made using paint markers, aerosol, house paint and biro and I'd curve the edges of the board I painted onto as a way of questioning the normal 'square' shape of a canvas. By painting onto things I've found like cardboard boxes, book covers and now packages, I'm continuing to try and work outside of traditional means.
Conceptually, the 'found' objects like pharmaceutical boxes or fast food wrappers, already have their own story before I actually paint onto them, so what I do on them is my response to this narrative. It also talks about how I am interacting with the world when I'm traveling, or where I'm living - so I'm making art using the things around me. Some of my early pieces were painted onto packaging from the Korean grocery store that I used to live above and shop at, so the art making process had a personal element that related to my direct world. Advertising and packaging is a part of what has now become our 'natural' environment, and I think it's relevant to make art about this experience.
For that series you were leaving that “mash-up“ technique of yours behind… were you fully aware about which character will fit which package from the very beginning or did that become clear in the process?
Yes, the 'mash-up' technique has always been my passion, but of late, I've been simplifying the process down to the juxtaposing of two elements, rather than 10 or 20 onto the packages. Sometimes I look at it as if the 'collision' of the two images has a random or arbitrary quality, which almost reflects the banality of our experience watching TV or surfing the internet. If art can be seen as a method of trying to make sense of the world, then for me, these often 'random' combinations make sudden and totally unexpected new narratives. For example, by placing the Simpson's character Apu onto a Viagra packet - it can only be titled 'Please Come Again.' My process is very organic, and I rarely plan things before I do them. I most enjoy finding things as they evolve and for the artwork to almost take its own direction.
Your paintings usually are are also pretty impressive in scale… was it challenging for you to be limited to a small plain in comparison for this project?
I did a paste-up last week on a wall that was 11m x 4m, and this week I'm painting onto a McDonald's fry package 11cm x 8cm, so yeah I’m often working in drastic changes in scale. In Toronto, my studio is quite small, which has been fine for me because I've been making very small works on packages. It's also great when I'm traveling and perfect for shipping them to galleries or to collectors. My last exhibition in Singapore had about 50 packaging works, and I managed to send them all there in a small shoe box - which is a big difference in the way I'm often used to shipping large works around the world.
Please tell me a bit Stupid Krap … are you as much involved in it like in the beginning or is your schedule interfering with your commitment?
Stupid Krap has been around since 2005, and was started to sell prints and promote Australian artists to the rest of the world. We've worked with just about all of Australia's most notable artists including Anthony Lister, Kill Pixie, Kid Zoom, and Numskull to name a few. The name 'Stupid Krap' always gets people's attention, and I came up with the name mostly as an ironic reaction to the entire idea of starting a 'commercial business' that 'commodified' art.
In the last year while I've been in Toronto, it has been difficult to juggle making art and selling art at the same time, but we're re-launching Stupid Krap in May this year with some new artists and some great new projects - so stay tuned.