Ben Durham

“Before any drawing was begun, before I even knew what I wanted to draw, the paper appeared as a monumental headstone, an Anselmo stonework, a skin surface marked by a history of scars and wrinkles, an unmarked map without orientation. Honestly, before I even knew what to draw, I was perfectly aware that the sheet of paper was already the most interesting thing I had ever made.”

- Ben Durham

In an age when art and the New York-centric world it inhabits can seem irretrievably devoted to an aesthetic that is decidedly big, and typically non-representational, it is a noteworthy thing indeed, and certainly exciting, to see an artist like Ben Durham capturing a bit of attention and emerging to take his first steps towards the art world center stage. Noteworthy because Kentucky based Durham, in essence, is a paper maker and portraitist, mediums that rarely call out for passionate consideration and review; exciting because Durham’s work is anything but simple portraiture and papermaking.
"Text Portraits" by Ben Durham

Recently on view at the National Portrait Gallery and simultaneous solo shows in both New York and Los Angeles, works from Durham’s series Text Portraits and Map Diptychs, Durham take an unusual stroll down memory lane – via the metaphoric back alleys and darker corners of the rough edged corners of the area in which he grew up in his native Lexington, Kentucky. Straddling two versions of the same down and out narrative – one black, one white – the friends and acquaintances who inhabited Durham’s childhood neighborhood populate his portraits today – via their mug shots the artist culls from a local online database of arrests.

"Things got strange as we grew older," Durham told Art In America in a 2011 interview. "A lot of the people in my portraits started to become more emblematic of the culture they grew up in."

"Jennifer" by Ben_Durham

Working on paper he makes himself ("The paper takes on the history of my hands, gets into the drawing. I like to think of the paper as being an abstracting force that brings in sculptural elements," he told Art In America), Durham begins each portrait by drawing the silhouette and then filling it with a tiny handwritten script of free-flowing, stream of consciousness narrative – everything he can remember about the person, his relationship to them, and their story. He then reads the text into a recording, which he plays on a loop in his studio, re-writing the text over and over again, in bits and pieces as they play, to color, shade and shape the image. The result is a photo-realist portrait in which the text has been rendered illegible. That illegibility, Durham told Art 21 Magazine in a 2011 interview, is representative of his failure to tell the subject’s story via narrative.

“I strive to find some way to tell the subject’s story and yet I know I will fail to do so,” he told Art 21. “That failure is inherent in the text, just as, in my mind, it is inherent in the retelling of any story or history. That failure is made visual in the creation of these portraits. As I’m fond of saying, it is a history deconstructed. Perhaps if I want to be more honest, I should say it is a failed history deconstructed.”

You can read more about Ben Durham at Art In America, Art 21 Magazine, and The Village Voice.
And learn more about Portraiture Now: Drawing on the Edge at the National Portrait Gallery.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published