Art That Matters: Ben Perrone

War Ongoing Project

photos by Rose Mattrey for Artvoice

Not long after I set up my last show, my good friend and contact at Artspace, Joanna, e-mailed me with an interesting proposition: did I want to cross promote the show with another artist’s opening at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center? Of course, the answer was yes. But when I read the actual proposal I was even more enthused about the association. Ben Perrone has been making art in Western NY for a long time and his piece at the Burchfield is  the culmination of a career filled with aesthetic activism and lots of stylistic exploration and innovation.

The installation itself is a brooding monument to the destruction of war and is not to be missed (hurry! It runs through May 30th). It recalls both the numbing repetition of graves at Arlington National Cemetery as well as the formal elegance of the holocaust memorial in Berlin with its imposing grid structure. Juxtaposing the wall of bags is a pile of more, discarded bags, wheelchairs, and video and sound work, forming an enveloping tomb around the viewer. A list of the casualties to date cascades over the scene, visually shattering as they fall across the detritus, mimicking the senseless and chaotic destruction of lives in wartime. You can read a fine article about it and him here and see him talk about it here.

Luckily, some of his figurative work dealing with the conflict in Kosovo  is also on view at Buffalo Big Print and is also a must see, running until June 1st. It’s a great opportunity to see the breadth of work that Perrone makes, with the charged, sparse drawings offering a look at a different medium with the same message.

As if offering to include me in the project’s promotion and attending my opening wasn’t enough, Ben was also kind enough to answer some questions from me about his work, the installation and the state of activist art today. The interview is after the jump…

War Ongoing Project

photo by Rose Mattrey for Artvoice

In the Artvoice profile on your installation, you mentioned coming across the use of paper bags as a modular sculptural element. Could you talk a little more about that? How do the bags themselves illustrate what you’re trying to say?

I used large grocery bags first as an idea to build a large modular wall, an idea that incorporated a light, flexible and mobile facade as opposed to a large canvas. Images could be projected or painted on its surface which would be more ‘alive’ that the flat surface of canvas. Later I used the bag idea as a sculptural concept for a museum competition for outdoor sculpture. That idea was one large fabric bag that changed color. It also contained paintings, sculpture and ceramics that overflowed from the top. It was a metaphor for the museum which is also a container for art. My next idea was to use a large amount of small black bags in a sculpture, hung from filaments, making a huge triangular form. These black empty bags represented the lives lost in the Iraq war. That idea was seminal in earlier work and returned my thinking to the war theme which surfaces periodically. It was used again in the “War Ongoing Project”.

The article also mentioned your 2-D work (some of which will be shown at Buffalo Big Print this month). How do you feel this work fits into your larger practice? Do you make a distinction between your painting and installation?

I don’t think of there being a distinction between what I’m interested in and the media that carries that expression. There are however limits on how those ideas are expressed. Painting has been the favored way to express large ideas, usually more literal while sculpture has been a more ‘abstract’ (even when representational) and limited media. I have tried to make sculpture a more expressive, dominate, and culturally intense purveyor of ideas by the use of size, theme, and supporting media. In the project I use the enclosed room, control of lighting and sound, and the digital effects of the semi porous wall of bags to ‘mesmerize’ the viewer, transporting their attention and hopefully focusing it on the theme of war-loss. I try too to load the room with sensory input. It’s not minimal art or minimal thinking. I hope it’s emotionally intense and opens eyes.

You describe yourself as a “peripheral war protester” in the 60s and 70s. Did you feel a solidarity with other artists working in the same vein at the time? Was there much of a movement?

There was a movement, some SDS types that had a right wing backlash. People including my own family were hearty believers of the ‘company line’, that is ‘our country could do nothing bad’. I did some posters while others did what they could do in theater, art, song and other expressions. Not an organized movement, no marching in the streets, but more personal. Some of my friends were intimidated by who knows what, possibly government types. I once was threatened on the phone because of my casual associations. My art at that time was ‘dark’ and I liked the thought that Kafka was real.

Similarly, how do you see the state of activist art today? Do you think there’s more of it now or perhaps just better exposure?

There is less of a movement today around here. Within the army maybe more, but there are things happening not carried by the media. There was a huge movement in the army during the Viet Nam war that was growing by leaps and bounds and was frightening to Nixon. A good source for that is the film “Yes Sir! No Sir!”. Today it’s all about the draft. Without it there is little student action.

Do you find a disconnect between the art establishment and artists who want to say something important with their work? It seems major institutions are slowly taking notice of more directly activist work. Is this a good thing or do you think it will lead to a co-option of the message?

Art institutions are notoriously conservative. Look at the people who run them. They’re people who have the most investment in banks and industry, and have the money to help support the institutions. Artist are considered for gallery representation if they can provide prestige or are a good investment. The not so recent ‘deaccession’ controversy was framed with the AKAG saying that no matter what the public thought, they were going to do it anyway. I don’t want to beat a dead horse but it did turn off a lot of members that went on to support the Burchfield instead. I don’t see institutions making a move toward activist work. That has to come from pressure from artists and in order for that to happen most artist will have to stand on their head.

Are there any other artists working today who are on the same page as you? Could we be on the verge of a new movement or school?

Not many artists are doing it yet. There may be a movement starting but I’m not in a good position to see it. I don’t pay too much attention to the ‘scene’.

Do you maintain a non-art activist presence? The Burchfield-Penney show is in conjunction with other related programs dealing with war and activism. Do you have any affiliation with anti-war groups outside of the art world?

Sorry but I don’t. It’s a matter of having time and energy. I sometimes give to charities or political movements but seldom participate. But I try to stay aware in case we’re called out into the streets to stop Byron Brown (joke).

What do you hope people take away from your work? Are you out to change perception or do you consider your work to be a strictly personal statement? Has doing the installation clarified or changed your own positions on the war?

I have learned a lot from my project and effort to get more groups involved in the war against war. I felt that the opportunity to do the project required me to make a bigger effort to get others involved and in so doing make them more aware of what’s going on. I think they know that deep down but fail to act on it. When you do you feel more satisfied and that your art is more important. I applaud those who have joined the ‘war against war’.

Finally, what’s next for you?

I never know what’s next. There are some small sculptural pieces I want to do, some 3-D painting and other things.

I’d like to thank Ben Perrone for agreeing to the interview and for all the support. War Ongoing Project runs at the Burchfield-Penny Art Center through May 30th and Kosovo Series runs at Buffalo Big Print through June 1st.

War Ongoing Project


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