Ben Aitken, Sometime I feel like killing my self[ies]
Rubicon ARI, North Melbourne; 14 January – 31 January 2015
The translation of the self, from the physical carbon-based bag of skin we inhabit to the shiny yet flattened projection we cast out through screens in social media avatars and photo streams, is a point of contemporary interest and research. With new media formats barely imaginable during the time of McLuhan’s musings on media image and technology now becoming the social standard in western cultures, in what way is the medium blurring with the message, and what messages are we even sending to each other in these mediums anymore?
Ben Aitken’s suite of paintings is a seriously earnest incursion into this terrain, a proposal laid bare by the show’s title Sometimes I want to kill myself[ies]. The very idea of capturing an image of oneself and then broadcasting it to a viewing public is not new. The self portrait is a staple genre of art, most particularly and traditionally in painting. By coupling the traditional self-portrait painting with the contemporary selfie, Aitken allows for a cross-firing of relations and discordance to take place.
Importantly of course, as is the nature of the imagery in these fields, he lays himself (or images of himself) at the core of the visual cues in this exploration. Stripped of clothing he is nonetheless dressed by styling in the form of his hair and tattoos. Signifiers of particular associations, deliberately and self-consciously leveraged as loaded language. What is most captivating, and at the heart of Aitken’s strength, his awareness and carefully crafted use of the language of brushstroke and painting itself. The language of his craft is used to speak loudly about the ideas he’s playing with. Economically and efficaciously, Aitken brings speed to play in an arena of contemplation and contemplation in an arena of speed.
At its core, this is the slow art of painting gazing into the throwaway speeds of photography and telecommunications. With its careful hand-eye coordination and binocular gaze brought to bear on the human contemplation of a scene, painting grasps a certain reality. By contrast, the mechanical monocular digitisation of light transported as code through wifi networks grasps its own reality. Aitken smashes the two together and throws himself into the centre as the subject as well as the architect of his project.
Most enjoyably, Aitken is able to capture some of that very particular reality created by digitised imagery in a most painterly fashion. He overlays multiple portraits and multiple angles, itself an echo of the reverberating proliferation of the selfie, but also bringing both cubism and pop to the conversation. The imagery still reads as digital despite its painterly language and this is no easy task. The multiple fractures of overlaying faces takes the multi-dimensional and researched gaze of the cubist and mashes it with the silkscreened surface aggregation of pop without becoming either and miraculously, achieving its own unique quality.
Another aspect of note is the way in which the language of abstraction through colour field and geometry is deftly woven underneath the frisson of play going on with the portraiture. Blocks of colour are sculpturally dealt with through multiple canvas placements within singular frames. The colours are hideously decorative, like house paints from the endless array of ‘sunset muse’ and ‘cherry delight’ offerings of the homewares warehouses of this world. But this just brings the idea of home to the equation, of identity and the bricks and mortar existence of our own bodies in their most private of spaces.
This is a body of work by a gifted painter with good ideas. The ideas are embedded inside the work and there’s enough hints for you to find a pathway of your own to those that might be tickling the outer edges of your own understanding. Keep an eye out for his next outing, it’s bound to be worth a look.