Artist Ben Frost Is At War With Our Culture’s Naïve Iconography
Ben Frost is a visual artist who hopes to unsettle you. Using found packaging and cultural icons in shocking ways, his post-pop art pushes the viewer beyond a safe place. The Australian has spent the last 10 or so years travelling the world and exhibiting his paintings and repurposed "consumer packaging" – which often destroy simplistic and nostalgic memories of some our culture's most enduring icons. Ben Frost is the art world's Tyler Durden, splicing single frames of porn into private collections and onto gallery walls. Frost is also an accomplished street artist, leaving his mark on the cities where he formally exhibits with paste-up works.
Frost, who now has a studio in Toronto, exhibited at Don't Tell Mama Gallery last summer – with certain pieces portraying Disney and Simpsons characters as violent, sexually depraved and deeply troubled. Everything one suspects a cartoon character would be like if there were to function in our world. Société Perrier caught up with Frost while he was at Art Basel in Miami in December.
You work with many different types of media, much of it involving everyday objects and locations. What draws you to these less traditional materials and contexts?
Do you remember when you were in high school, and you would go through your text book while the teacher was waffling on and draw moustaches on the historical figures and write swear words on the borders of the page? I still do that, but now people pay me for it.
Your work has caused quite a bit of controversy, particularly in Australia where you used to live. Do you feel that your work has become more embraced over the last ten years, or are you still challenged by censors?
As an Australian, I'm inherently abrasive and shocking - which has always worked well for my artwork, though tragic for my social life. 'Controversial' art only seems to exist in the institutional gallery system, mostly from the public's reaction as to whether or not it's art and, more importantly, why their tax dollars are paying for it.
You've clearly got a complicated relationship with popular culture and much of your work is intentionally provocative. Describe to us how you work through an idea.
With my chaotic, 'collage' style paintings, it's very organic and I do most of my juxtapositions on the canvas as I go. The process can take a long time – especially in contemplating how to move forward in each step, so I usually have two or three paintings on the wall that I work on at the same time. Because I appropriate a lot of the elements, like logos, figures and corporate mascots, I'm somewhat bound by the quality and context of what I can find. Art is solving problems, both conceptually and visually, and that's where I find it most fun and rewarding.
You've started a few different initiatives, including the online art shop stupidkrap.com, where you've got a great stable of artists selling original work and prints. How did that come together?
Lowbrow, street, and urban are the most commonly used terms to describe the genre that has existed and most predominantly been embraced in the last 10 or so years. Stupid Krap was a Sydney thing. Melbourne had the Everfresh crew, London had the Banksy scene, and the US blew up out of San Francisco and LA. In around 2005, we started Stupid Krap mostly out of necessity, as a way of coming together and 'formalizing' the style of artwork our small group was involved in, and it grew from there. There were very few spaces at the time that were sympathetic to exploring street based work in a gallery setting, and so we sold and promoted our work worldwide via limited edition prints on Stupid Krap.
You had a show at Toronto’s Don’t Tell Mama Gallery this past summer. Tell us a little bit about that experience.
My exhibition was called *Serving Suggestion; it was a mix between large-scale works on paper (paste-ups) and works on found packaging. The paste-up/paper works were hung on the walls with the intention of pasting them up on the streets after the show - which I ended up doing on my travels in LA, San Francisco, Windsor (Ontario) and back in Sydney. The show went well and I met a lot of great people who came out to see it.
Toronto street art is a riddle wrapped in an enigma. The first time I walked down Graffiti Alley, I saw a massive SPUD stencil of a smiling hand-grenade character on the wall (I think SPUD's work is pretty awesome) and it had been crossed out with spray paint with the words 'GO HOME ART FAG' or something to that effect. Toronto seems to be dominated by graffiti crews, and 3D lettering is where it’s at, rather than stencils and paste-ups.
On your blog, you posted some photos of your paste-up work in Windsor, Ontario. It must be fun wandering around a foreign place trying to find the perfect context for your work.
The most interesting, progressive and proactive artist that I've met in Canada is Dan Bombardier, a.k.a. DENIAL. I think an important indicator of true 'contemporary' art is how well it can exist outside of the gallery system, and Dan's work is inspiring in this respect.
He lives in Windsor and he invited me down for a week to make some work out of his studio, and while I was there I did a paste-up series on some local abandoned stores. There was a big Homer Simpson image depicting him crying, with blood all over his hands, that I put on a closed and boarded up 7-11, a two headed Huey and Dewey on a KFC and my "Self-Regenerating Bambi" paste up on the outside of an abandoned Home Depot. The local papers saw them and ran stories on the series, which was cool, though it's kind of weird talking about these things considering they were illegal.
Did you put up any paste-up work in Toronto?
I've done a few things around town, but I've been mostly focusing on making paintings in my studio since I arrived. I have some great new stuff to put up, but I'm kinda scared now that it's snowing that my wheat paste might freeze while I'm rolling it onto the wall.
Ben Frost’s latest solo exhibition, "The Perfect Drug", opens February 21 in Singapore.
All images courtesy of Ben Frost.