Trudy Benson

Trudy Benson Interview - By Steven Cox

HUNTED PROJECTS presents a fascinating insight to the work of Trudy Benson, a Brooklyn based painter represented by Mike Weiss Gallery in Manhattan, New York.  

Benson's work showcases a fetishised appreciation of paint, indulging into the physicality of the material through using a diverse mix of both materials and processes.  The visual elements within Benson's work appear to emulate the primitive capabilities of early, pre-illustrator, MS Paint or MacPaint software, though at base, Benson highlights the downfalls of the flat virtual plane of a computer screen.  The physical qualities of Benson's thickly applied paint surfaces explore the illusion of space, as well as the creation of depth through layers of abstraction.


Can you tell HUNTED PROJECTS about yourself and your creative background?

TB: I was born in Richmond, Virginia and lived there until I moved to Brooklyn in 2008.  I am an abstract painter, but was actually a figurative painter throughout most of my education.  I’m married to another painter, Russell Tyler, and we have two cats together.

When did your interest within the arts begin?

TB: Ever since I can remember I’ve been drawing and painting.  I remember really thinking I could be an artist when I found a book about Henri Matisse at my elementary school book sale.  He’s always been my favorite artist.  

When viewing your work, the computer program Microsoft Paint comes to mind.  For many of the techniques you apply to the canvas appear to be the physical or manual realization of MS Paint’s brush, fill bucket, gradient, pencil or spray can.  Do you use any programs such as Paint when planning a work?

TB: I use the most basic digital imaging program that came with my studio computer - a P.C. - to make sketches which I use as guides for certain parts of my paintings.  I don’t really plan out my paintings from the beginning, though.  MS Paint and other basic digital imaging software are more of an inspiration than a tool.  The paintings first manifest themselves as a simple idea, or jumping off point, usually about effect.  From there, experiments with application and technique lead to an improvisational process in the studio.  The reference to MS Paint is definitely intentional; however, it revealed itself to be an inspiration through the process of making paintings with different paints and applications of paint.  I believe the first abstract works I consciously made were on an old Macintosh SE using the MacPaint software, so I kind of discovered that when I finally moved into abstraction I was using similar materials as the virtual toolbox and even collaging paint elements in a similar way.  

The large-scale paintings that you create would require assistance of some form, to help carry, move and lift.  Do you face any difficulties with your work regarding the physicality of them, as they seem to be less than easy to maneuver independently?

TB: Most of my paintings I can actually carry around my studio by myself, with exception to anything over 8 feet.  Since the nature of my work require that I work on several paintings at once to allow for drying time, it works to my advantage that larger pieces occupy a particular wall in my studio for weeks at a time before being moved out of my active work space.  Because of the works’ scale and also the delicate nature of their surface, I always need a friend to help pack and wrap the paintings, but that is as inconvenient as it gets.  The entire painting happens with the stretcher in the same position, so just about everything else in my studio is on wheels to move around the work.

What would you personally recognize as an ideal starting point for an artwork? A sketch, photo or even new technique you wish to try?

TB: I don't reference photos usually in my paintings, and I don't start with a sketch either. I would say the ideal starting point for a painting is usually just the first mark on the surface. The painting that results is a series of reactions to this initial mark. Though sometimes I will begin a painting with a kind of backdrop of stripes.

What do you find to be the major hurdles you jump through during your painting process?

TB: Sometimes I decide I want a certain effect in a painting, and I have to teach myself how to use certain tools in order to achieve it.  For example, I have been using an airbrush to spray paint, and I’m still not as skilled as I would like to be with it.

In another sense, the intuitive nature of my process sometimes leads me down a rabbit-hole of near-failure from which I have to resolve overwhelming compositional and color issues.  These are things that keep painting interesting to me.

Albert Oehlen’s computer paintings from the 1990’s investigate the translation of digital media through exploring the physical limits of painting.  How does this parallel with your practice seeing that there is a mutual rebellion of the flat surface, especially to it being akin to that of a computer screen?

TB: These particular Albert Oehlen paintings are some of the more inspirational paintings to me.  Oehlen did most of the imaging digitally for this body of work, but when it was transferred to canvas, he had to smooth out certain elements manually in paint that he, at the time, had no control over.  The printing caused pixelated edges to diagonal lines and other “mistakes”.  I think for Oehlen, these paintings were kind of a humanistic argument pointing to the shortcomings of the computer in painting.  I am making paintings in a time when a more “perfect” virtual image comes almost second nature to me, as someone who grew up around computers.  I actually have trouble finding imaging programs that still create that kind of stair-stepped edge on any line that isn’t perfectly horizontal or vertical.

The parallel between Oehlen’s computer paintings and the work I’m making currently is, I think, a similar argument for what paint can do and what computers can’t.  In my work, I have to deal with gravity and other things beyond my control, and I can’t simply “Undo” or “Step backwards”.  These kinds of things lead to improvising and fugitive marks, and hopefully a freshness and physical presence that is more exciting than the screen.  You can’t get tape bleed with Photoshop.

What are your tools of choice when exploring your personal painters vocabulary?

TB: I use a lot of masking tape, also a squeegee.  I’ve found myself to be using actual brushes less and less.  I use an airbrush to spray acrylic and oil paint.  The latest tool I’ve been using is a cake decorator to add a more linear viscous element, where I had previously only squeezed paint directly from the tube.  Sometimes I use a hair pick.  I can’t live without my paint extruder.

Do you feel that the exhaustion of a painter’s vocabulary is possible?

TB: Personally, I think it’s important to continually add to your vocabulary as a painter.  Some things get left behind in the process and that’s fine.  I do think without taking risks and trying new things in the studio, paintings can start to look tired and formulaic.

Your painting titled Fail very much echoes the notion of creative frustration and of course, painterly failure.  Without literally referencing this work, at what point would you consider a work of yours a failure? and how would you avoid losing control of a work?

TB: That painting was one of the first in an ongoing series that addresses the idea of failure in painting.  I finished the painting to my liking at one point, and then one day, a week or so after the last mark had been applied, I came to my studio to find that most of the paint had actually slid off the panel onto the studio floor and was continuing to slide as I stood there.  This had happened to me to a lesser degree, but never to this extent - most of the painting!  (I allow for these kinds of things to happen with my work, most of the time without “fixing” them.  The materiality of the work is so important that gravity and the nature of paint itself has to be taken into account and adapted to rather than controlled completely.  Besides, the mark a chunk of paint makes when it slides down the surface is one of my favorite marks.)  I reacted to this disappointment by grabbing the nearest can of spray paint and scribbling over the dripping painting.  This reaction has led to a series of paintings which intentionally mask out most of the painting with each layer of information, like white-out.

To return to your question, I cannot consider a work a failure until I’ve had enough time to live with the painting.  Usually I don’t know it’s been a failed painting until much after it’s been resolved.  Regarding losing control of a work, I like to have a little bit of failure in each painting.

What is your creative process like? Do you have a set schedule? Loud music? Strong coffee? Cigarettes?

TB: I don’t really have a set schedule, though I do make it to the studio just about every day.  I like to have my coffee with my paintings in silence and then listen to music loudly to drown out my studio mate’s NPR.  When I’m alone, lately I’ve been working in complete silence.

When viewing your work, there is a visibly undeniable enjoyment factor present that shows a personal love for what you do.  Can you discuss what your work means to yourself and what it is about painting that keeps you on your toes?

TB: To be honest, I love the act of painting.  I love walking into someone’s studio, or gallery and smelling paint.  The great thing about being a painter is that there is always something to strive for - being a better painter.  I could make the best painting of my life at 90 or just as easily I could have made it ten years ago, but I will never know as long as I continue making paintings.  To me, the most interesting painting problem is predictability.  I want to make paintings that are a never predictable.

What are you currently working towards?

TB: I am in the fortunate position of being able to work in my studio pretty much uninterrupted.  I am preparing to move studios for the second time in a year, so with the New Year I will begin my next series of paintings in my new studio.

Trudy Benson

All images courtesy of Trudy Benson and Mike Weiss Gallery