modern language pdfPaintings that do Things
(on the work of Ben Cove)

essay by George Vasey to accompany Modern Language, a solo show at Peter von Kant, 2015

Is it the job of art to communicate? If so, how do we constitute its language? Art, of course, is not reducible to a fixed syntax or semiotic and one can see the task of artists as attempting to work against the habitual by opening up nuances of form and feeling. Language is full of noise and misunderstanding and the gap between intention and reception, with its communicative inefficiencies, is where art does its best work. Writing in the art journal Documents in 1929, Georges Bataille called on words to do a job rather than define a meaning. For Bataille, words should do things and his interest in ‘L’informe’ (formlessness) was a way of “undoing the whole system of meaning”. For Bataille, formlessness is a way of dissolving categorical binaries and bringing art into a direct relationship with the messy world around it.

I’m reminded of Bataille’s ideas when thinking about the work of Ben Cove. The artist’s practice encompasses painting, photography and sculpture, combining these elements within installations that take the languages of art history and apply a new type of grammar to them. By making paintings that are not quite abstract and sculpture that is almost like furniture, Cove’s work operates in the porous space between art, design and architecture, infiltrating abstraction with a host of other concerns. Stack (2015) is typical — lines of neon pink and orange are framed by blocks of dark grey and tessellated black and white bands. Within a shallow depth of field, Cove incorporates elements of acidic colour, trompe l’oeil marbling and architectural fascia.

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london open at whitechapel gallery catalogueThe London Open at the Whitechapel Gallery, 2015
catalogue text by Daniel F Herrmann

Talk about attention to detail. Ben Cove’s work and presentation oscillates between modes of reception. The first impression of his two-wall installation is that of large-size black and white photo vinyls filling the viewer’s periphery of vision. The vinyls show an exhibition situation: shelves of sculptures, masks and fetishes are on display, viewed by two anonymous visitors. The left wall shows a man, the right wall a woman; both are conservatively dressed, both passingly look at the artefacts on display - and both are white. Cove introduces a scene of the ‘Western Gaze’, illustrating conventions of traditional exhibition display and reception. The archetypal situation is contradicted by the introduction of his own paintings - and they require an entirely different way of viewing.

Cove paints in small formats, which allow him to place a selection of works in strategic positions on the photo vinyls, both emulating domestic hangs - as in the viewing tradition of surrealism - and to subvert the very scene depicted as their background. His paintings are intricately composed abstracts, often incorporating renditions of frame structures and geometric objects. The elements seem to hover, float or stand out in front of one another, creating significant depth on an otherwise flat surface. They employ subtle textures and patterns, making use of carefully defined areas of scratching and sanding, surprisingly in their variety and precision. In contrast to the large-scale photo-vinyls, which can only be perceived at a distance and seem to present a momentary snapshot of fleeting interest, Cove’s paintings are dependent on the viewer’s close-up position and observation - allowing for the discovery of new details with every minute spent with them.
Three Works Exhibition, 2015
interview with Chris Shaw for the Three Works website

CS: A quick visit to your website reveals quite a bit has been written about your work. How do these texts come about and how involved are you in the process?

BC: The texts that accompany solo shows are commissioned but are sometimes written by the curators of the show. The interviews or Q&A’s come from being approached. For my last two solo shows George Vasey has written the essays. I first worked with George about six years ago when he put me in a show he curated. Since then he has gone on to establish himself as a really good writer as well as curator and being as he’d known my work for a while and seen it develop, I thought he’d be able to bring a lot more to it.

In most cases these texts are preceded by studio visits in front of the work or phone conversations and thoughts and images in emails. Sometimes I’m asked what I’d like the text to focus on, but usually I don’t want to dictate this. I’d rather see what the writer picks up on, what they think are the most significant aspects of the work. I don’t think it’s the job of the writer to relay an artist’s intentions, you can do that yourself - it’s much more valuable to hear an interpretation.

Having texts written about the work by someone else is a real luxury. Previously I’d written about the work myself and this was then often rehashed into a press release but I’ve never been comfortable with this. Philip Guston once said in an interview that it’s not the job of an artist to speak about the work. There are times and places for this, but for me the pressure of trying to write (speaking is usually easier) during the making process can sometimes be very difficult. It’s often much easier after the event. Writing about my own work in a general way is one of the hardest things to do, answering specific questions less so.

CS: Are you surprised by some of the ideas and notions that other people have about what you do?

BC: Yes, sometimes I’m surprised by what’s written, but I’ve never felt anyone’s been massively off the mark. Often the most surprising things are the comparisons to other practitioners whom you either weren’t aware of or have never consciously seen a connection with.

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Writing in Relation
interview with Yvette Greslé, April, 2015

Why did you decide to move from architecture to being a full-time artist?

I did architecture because I was interested in it when I was at school, and I was led to believe that being an artist wasn’t really an option as a career. But I knew quite soon that I probably wasn’t going to be very fulfilled as an architect. I started to understand that most architectural projects are heavily compromised by all sorts of things. I did finish a BA in architecture but knew I wasn’t going to carry on with it. I thought when I left my architecture degree that I would leave all that behind me but I didn’t at all. Architecture has had a huge impact on me. The architecture course was a very modernist one, at the University of Nottingham. You were taught things like ‘form follows function’, and you were taught that ornament was something superfluous. It took me a long time (after I left architecture) to make work which wasn’t quite logical and quite rational.

Who were the architects foregrounded in the course?

Corbusier was a major emphasis. We were taught high modernism. We weren’t taught all things in modernism. I reacted against high modernism and I saw it as quite a narrow-minded doctrine.

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Plane to Line to Point: Ben Cove & Kate Terry, 2015
text and Q&A with Giovanna Paternó, dalla Rosa Gallery, London

“As we gradually tear the point out of its restricted sphere of customary influence, its inner attributes - which were silent until now - make themselves heard more and more. One after the other, these qualities - inner tensions - come out of the depths of its being and radiate their energy. [...] The dead point becomes a living thing.”

(Wassily Kandinsky, Point and Line to Plane, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1947)

Ben Cove and Kate Terry have been unintentionally collaborating to shape this two-person exhibition, their practices complement each-other so well that one would assume some kind of exchange has taken place, while in reality they worked almost unaware of each-other. Powdery paints and neon-bright lines are the building blocks for both artists: Cove mixes them with a juxtaposition of almost recognisable elements often borrowed from design and architecture, whereas Terry defines delicate geometries with painted wooden structures supported by a system of threads.

The starting point for Cove’s work – both paintings and sculptures – comes from a bank of historic photographic images from a variety of sources: architecture, furniture, artefacts, interior spaces and depictions of the body. Nothing is lifted directly, but much is insinuated or suggested. In a series of micro essays George Vasey considered Cove’s paintings and concluded that they “invoke a particular strand of Modernist Abstraction. If Modernism was a response to its own era’s technological advancements (aviation, industrialism, and the machine) then Cove’s paintings are at once heraldic and diagrammatic, provisional yet monumental. We could be looking at an unbuilt home, a logo for a multinational corporation or simply two lines intersecting within a nebulous environment.”

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george_vasey_essaySeven Micro Essays on the Work of Ben Cove (with some historical detours)
George Vasey, June 2013

1) You just need a hair of the dog.

I’m looking at a well dressed woman standing in a museum, staring at a tribal mask. She is holding a piece of paper with what I assume is a list of works in the exhibition and a half empty glass of red wine in the same hand. The exaggerated collar on her shirt dates the image to around the mid Seventies. She is bending slightly to meet the carved eyes of the mask. She is taking a closer inspection at the surface detail and craftsmanship. The elaborate patterning on the mask infer a significance that is impossible to decode - its native utility long displaced by shifting geographies. It is now little more than a curio, an object of aesthetic interest to the woman with the Mary Quant hair-do.

The crowded installation and indoor foliage further date the image - the whole gallery is in need of some curatorial spring cleaning. Ben Cove bought the photograph (along with a number of others) from eBay and is showing me the image in his studio, talking about how it has become a kind of talismanic image for the start of a new body of work. The image is compelling for a number of different reasons. It parallels a moment (Ben later tells me that the image is from 1972) where the Modernist project and certain forms of Western colonialism are being dismantled. From my current perspective, the object and woman both become the ‘other’ - I stare at the woman staring blankly at a carving looking blankly back.

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Artitious Website
text and interview with Gudrun Wurlitzer, February 2015

Ben Cove studied architecture first before he went into art. At first he had a more conceptual art period, but found the work process a bit limiting. So seven years ago he started painting again and turned his focus to working in a studio.

Needless to say you can see architecture appear in all of his work. Ben is strongly influenced by modernism in architecture, especially its primitivist influences in the post-war period.

Ben Cove works on panel, only occasionally on canvas. “I work on a painting for about six months”, he says, “I overpaint them a lot.” His works look like reliefs, but they are mere paintings. To make it even more complex he installs graphical sculptural elements in front of some of his paintings. And sometimes installs his paintings on wall-sized photographs, e.g. staged American press photos from the 1970s with people peering at primitive art.

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