Thursday, January 6, 2011
The Strange Case of Ben Durham
It doesn't seem that long ago, but in spring of 2000, Cheeseburger & Fries (with Eggroll) performed the opening reception for an exhibition by young artists, Ben Durham and Jon Wagner, in Lexington, KY. They were just out of high school, and handmade posters for the event seemed to fixate more on our performance and my return from England to visit Sexton Ming than their work.
Between then and now, after studying at Washington University in St. Louis, Ben has gone through stints as a graphic designer in Knoxville and knocking out some great letter press printmaking to arrive at a series of portraits in which he's developed a unique style and approach. While at first glance, the large works on handmade paper appear to be, more or less, realistic, when one steps closer, one realizes that the small marks and details that make up the large visuals are in fact comprised entirely of letters, words, sentences.
All of his "text portraits" are based upon people Ben remembers from his childhood in the Kenwick neighborhood in Lexington, Kentucky. Mug shots of these folk are the source material for his imagery, and the words in the pieces are aspects of that individual's story.
This work has garnered Mr. Durham attention and recognition, most notably a purchase by the Whitney Museum of American Art. This month marks the opening of the first major solo exhibition of Ben's work on both the east and west coast. "Ben Durham: Text Portraits" is two different shows: in New York at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery (JANUARY 7 - FEBRUARY 19, 2011) and in Los Angeles at Marc Selwyn Fine Art (JANUARY 15 - FEBRUARY 12, 2011).
Ben now lives in Midway, Kentucky. It's been hard to get him to want to hang out and drink with me as he's been preparing for these shows, but the world will benefit from the long hours he's been putting into these works. This marks something of a culmination and represents what I've already known for a long time as a friend, and that is that our Mr. Durham lives a life seriously devoted to understanding the world through the prism of what we call art, and that is something which in his work is plain to see.
Photo of Ben Durham, 2009, by Joe Turner.