Ben Venom has lived in San Francisco for 10 years, 3 years specifically in the Haight/Ashbury apartment where he resides now with his wife. Her striking landscape photographs of upstate New York fill the apartment entrance where he leads us towards his workspace at the end of the hallway where he makes the extraordinary sewn textiles and large quilts. He moved to San Francisco from Marietta, a large suburb outside Atlanta, Georgia, where he was a part of the city’s punk rock community: “Growing up in Atlanta in the ‘90s, I’m pretty much a product of the Atlanta ‘90s punk rock scene. That kind of mentality is definitely carried on through to adulthood, and my art-making practice,” he says.
When we meet up, he’s just beginning a busy month: commencing an artist residency at the de Young Museum while finishing up the artwork and install for his solo show, Lets Go All the Way at Ever Gold Gallery. “I’m installing part of it Monday, and then Tuesday I’ll be moving stuff over to the de Young,” he begins. “Wednesday my residency starts, but in between that I’ll finish installation at Ever Gold. On Wednesday I’m required to be at the de Young from 1-5.” Later this year, he adds, his work will be on view throughout the world, from California to Germany to South Korea. To others it may sound overwhelming, but with an air of rationale, organization, and the ring of excitement in his voice, one can be assured he thrives on this quick-paced life. A self-starter and a hard worker with a strong ethic, Ben stresses he makes every part of his quilts himself with the one deluxe sewing machine (which we learn is not a longarm sewing machine that, he jokes, may or may not be the way quilters ‘cheat’), inside his studio space: “People honestly didn’t believe me I did all the work myself, they thought I had a squadron of grandmothers in the basement. It’s all me, it’s my hand in the work. I’m a primarily a self-taught textile artist.”
Artist Ben Venom in his Haight Ashbury studio
Ben’s work has received wide acclaim for its innovative use of quilting, and punk material with a DIY ethos. He’s looking forward to furthering his practice in this new chapter of work that will be on view at Ever Gold. Moving focus from material to concept, Ben’s new work aims to get closer to the heart of it all: “This show for me is a push past just doing work that is primarily made of band t-shirts,” he begins. “My work has always been about more than just that, but when you get interviewed, people get stuck on that, and they focus on one main thing, and they tag it as that. And for a while I was tagged as a heavy metal quilter, and that’s not… that’s such a subset of what the work was about,” he says. “It was tied to that, but there were a lot of other things behind that. I don’t want to be pegged or branded as that only, so this show is really trying to make an effort to move beyond it.” He points out the tie-dye in the fingernails, the hand-printed fabric given to him from a close friend in Los Angeles, and the discounted goat skin purchased at a local fabric store that makes the prominent eagle’s beak: “It’s made from fabrics, donated fabrics from my community at large.”
The artistic inspirations and interests span a wide gamut: from punk rock and its DIY spirit to the Southern culture in which he grew up, and all contribute to the look of a completed work. Often with tongue in cheek, Ben pays homage to his roots. “Being from the South, the Deep South, we have NASCAR and monster trucks. I mean, NASCAR is pretty ridiculous, all they pretty much do is perpetually make left turns,” he jokes. “That mentality has been around where I grew up: it’s so absurd it’s awesome. A large premise of my work is having such an absurd idea that it goes full circle and it might become quite genius. I think it’s just kind of, just be yourself. It’s calculated down to being genuine: this is what I’m interested in, what I’ve researched, what I can get behind. And it’s not trend-setting, per se.”
Ben Venom, Once Bitten Twice Shy
Three quilts are laid out in the kitchen, all of which will be on view at Ever Gold Gallery beginning May 7. Two striking, large detailed quilts: one showing a lunging tiger, the other a screaming eagle aggressively displaying its full wingspan, are both composed of assorted fabrics and textures. “These will be hanging on opposite sides of the wall: Aces High versus Iron Fist, flying eagle versus charging tiger. I had been reading Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind by David Quammen, about alpha predators and how the changing environment can’t sustain them,” he says. “Iron Fist is also referring to a Motörhead song, where Aces High loosely refers to an Iron Maiden song. I really like little phrases extracted out of songs or poems and taking them, putting them into a new context. Context is everything. I’m toying with that.” Another quilt, entitled Once Bitten Twice Shy is beautifully comprised of lettering made from black leather jackets atop a ground of soft women’s white denim. “Once Bitten Twice Shy ties into the show’s title, Lets Go All the Way. It’s kind of sexual innuendo – that feminine and masculine,” he says. “And, it’s one way I predominantly speak about my work: it’s a collision. Disparate elements, disparate cultures, subcultures, fine art, crafting and fringes of society: motor gangs, folklore, the occult and mysticism.”
Learning more about Ben’s career, it seems that it was by staying true to these inspirations that led him to his current practice. While working on his MFA, Ben was predominantly a printmaker until he visited the travelling exhibition, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend at the de Young Museum in summer 2006. Ben was fascinated and inspired by artistic mastery of the self-taught African-American women, descendants of slaves, whose quilts abstractly illustrated the social and political culture, and history of the South. And his upcoming residency at the de Young marks an important moment for reflection along his journey from that exhibition to now. “It’s really important for me, now that I’m at the de Young — going back to that circular idea — it’s kind of come back around that I’m going to be there,” he says. “I’m extremely honored to be there for the next month working, making quilts, where I was almost entirely inspired by that Gee’s Bend quilt show to do what I’m doing now,” And with this impetus, he has ensured to make the most of this opportunity. “My quilt at Art Market is the second largest quilt I’ve ever made. I hope to make another large quilt while in residence at the de Young – the pressure is on!” he laughs.
Ben Venom, All the Aces, 2014 on view at Art Market San Francisco
This enlightening conversation about Gee’s Bend and his ensuing career path leads to a larger conversation about, and his experiences within, both specifically the modern quilt-making community and the broader current conditions of contemporary fine arts and crafts. “I noticed after doing sewing for such a long time, in ‘09 or ‘06, what I would call the new wave of craft,” Ben says, “where fine artists are now using mediums once associated with craft.” But he’s quick to distinguish between the artistic rediscovery and implementation, and the acquisition and exhibition of work in this new craft movement. Galleries and museum exhibitions, and critical discourse, he says, were variable in their level of engagement. “Weaving, embroidery, quilts, and showing those in fine art contemporary galleries, I think that’s relatively new thing that hasn’t been written about as much in ArtForum or Art in America,” he says, “But, if you look at the Whitney Biennial, Lisa Anne Auerbach was in the most recent Biennial, Joel Otterson, and others are recently getting higher attention. It’s been around for a little bit and I think people like me, Erin Riley, Lisa Anne Auerbach are definitely a part of that: one foot fine art, other foot in craft.” As for the local arts scene, Ben reminds us, “California College of the Arts used to be California College of Arts and Crafts, but they lost that. Now, it would be relevant… It happens a lot with musicians, too; they’re too ahead of the time.”
Ben Venom, Lets Go All the Way will be at Ever Gold Gallery May 7 through June 6, 2015. Thrill of It All, by Ben Venom de Young Museum Artist in Residence runs May 6 through May 31, 2015 with an artist reception May 29, 6–8:30 pm.