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 Benjamin Edwards  (1970 - )

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Lived/Active: District Of Columbia/Iowa      Known for: high colored abstract cityscape painting, found objects, teaching

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Benjamin Edwards creates paintings of fictional semi-urban environments combine web graphics, scrambled logos, and the actual layouts of various corporations’ headquarters as elements for his fantastical cityscapes. His series of Republic paintings makes liberal use of the detritus of marketing language, creating structures and locations that seem to have drifted back to the present from a cold, capitalist afterlife.

Here, Edwards discusses the origins of the Republic paintings.

"In the summer of 2001 as I was completing work for my first solo exhibition in New York, I began thinking about a more expansive project than what I had done to date. I felt that my paintings and projects were too conceptually specific to time and place to allow some of the deeper questions I had on my mind to come up to the surface. I wanted to explore a virtual world of my own making that could act as a sort of processor and assimilator of various interests that seemed only loosely connected. I thought of this world not as an end in itself, that is, not as a navigable virtual environment, but as a structural means of study to achieve a more cohesive narrative in my paintings. From this point on, my paintings wouldn’t take place in Los Angeles or Washington, DC, but in a fictional, timeless place that I began to call Republic.

This word had been in the back of my mind since the late ’80s and early ’90s when I first studied Jean Baudrillard’s ideas of the simulacrum and hyper-reality, which led me back to the allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic. Suddenly I began to see the built environment (as well as the whole of visual culture) around me as less than real and more like stage sets put up by someone or something. I went about my work as an artist, taking photographs of places while driving around cities and suburbs, and then using them to make paintings of my experiences; but I always had the feeling that as an artist I was only looking at the shadows on the wall of the cave and not at the underlying processes and systems that drove the effects.

It was later in the ’90s when I began to study the history of utopias that the word “republic” took on a deeper personal meaning. Plato’s vision of an ideal society was the seed that produced a whole lineage of utopias, from Thomas More in the early 16th century to socialists in the 19th century, and then the tragic courses pursued by Hitler and Stalin. However dark the results—no one would ever want to live in Plato’s ideal city—I am continually fascinated by this naively optimistic idea of the perfect society, how it has driven history, and how it still occasionally rears its head in advertising and politics. Do we still believe in progress? How do we value public good versus individual gain? In our rejection of the very idea of an ideal society, what have we lost, and can we ever get it back?

In the last few years, Republic has taken on a more political meaning for me as I’ve watched the giddy Pax Americana of the Clinton years spiral downward into the dark and fearsome Empire of Bush II. The quadruple tragedy of the failure of American democracy in the 2000 presidential elections, the September 11 attacks, the administration’s subsequent exploitation of that day for political purposes, and the severely misguided invasion of Iraq has led me to seriously wonder what country I’m living in now, and if it can still be called a republic.

It’s difficult to calculate the impact of a single historical event on a person’s life, particularly one as momentous and far-reaching as 9/11. I remember sitting in my studio poring over plans of cities from history and thinking about how to use them to build my own grandiose and ceremonial city while Ground Zero still smoldered about a mile away. I suspect that my thinking, and thus my work, is like a stiff piece of fabric: flexible enough to accommodate change but resistant enough to hold its own shape. Events like 9/11 and the birth of my daughter in 2002 were forceful enough to alter the form but not its essence. These two events probably further inspired me to want to build something new, but the initial desire was already there.

Brice Marden once said that he paints what he wants to see. In 1997, I started to see the kind of place that I wanted to build. With Conglomerate I departed from my usual method of merely reproducing a place that I had seen and instead put several places together to form something new. I was inspired by the mega-mergers and corporate consolidation that had begun to heat up along with the US economy, and I had intended to make something familiar but with exaggerated features, as if to extend the phenomenon to its logical conclusion. This new way of constructing a place was akin to a novelist creating a character from a composite of sources, and I found that a vast new space opened up in my work, a space for me to imagine a story of which this newly constructed place was a part.

Around this time I read something that helped to put this vision in context. In Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, written in 1888, the main character leaves the late 19th century and wakes up in the year 2000 to find the marvels of a perfect, harmonious socialist utopia. The character is subsequently introduced to the millennial codes of shopping: there’s a distribution center that has everything one could think of, there are no signs or advertising because none are needed, and identical distribution centers can be found within a five or ten minute walk from any residence. It struck me that this is the world that Wal-Mart has been striving for: one big, glorious merger to end all mergers. I started to think about how even such polar opposite visions of utopia, communist and capitalist, could end up in the same place, one of perfect uniformity.

Since this time I have been constantly asking myself what a capitalist utopia looks like? What are the ideal forms and the values of capitalism? The images, styles, and attitudes presented to us in advertising represent only partial vignettes of a larger ideological picture. One can get a glimpse of a perfectly dynamic world and its connected inhabitants by watching cell phone or financial services ads. On the other hand, corporations like Disney sell us the comfort and security of tradition. It’s almost as if there’s some grand scheme to push us forward to drive the economy and then pull us back to make us feel safe, sometimes simultaneously.

What will this capitalist vision look like in 100 years? In 1,000 years? I like to think of the world I’m trying to paint as one imagined from the eyes of an artist as far from our present situation as we are from ancient Rome. Or, perhaps Republic is the city I now live in, Washington, DC, seen through the fantasy of a perfect capitalist, contradictions and all.

Source:
"Benjamin Edwards: In Their Own Words", New York Foundation for the Arts, http://www.nyfa.org/level3.asp?id=342&fid=6&sid=17

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Benjamin Edwards

Born 1970 in Iowa City, Iowa
Lives and works in Washington, D.C.

EDUCATION
1997 MFA, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI

1992 San Francisco Art Institute, CA, Graduate Painting Program?

1992 BA, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

PROFESSIONAL:
2013 Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, Visiting Artist / Lecture

2010 University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, Visiting Artist / Lecture

2009 Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, Visiting Artist / Lecture
Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, Visiting Artist / Lecture

2008 Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto, Canada, Visiting Artist/ Lecture
University of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA, Visiting Artist/ Lecture
University of Maryland, College Park, MD,  Lecture

2007 Microsoft, Seattle, WA,  Lecture
Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, Lecture

2006 Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI,  Lecture
Georgetown University, Washington, DC, Lecture

2005 Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI, Visiting Artist / Lecture
University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, Visiting Artist / Lecture
Columbia University School of Architecture, New York, NY, Lecture / Panelist
Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, Visiting Artist / Lecture
Architectural Laboratory, Denver, CO, Lecture
Annual CAA Conference, Atlanta, GA, Lecture / Panelist
Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA, Visiting Artist / Lecture

2004 Columbia University School of Architecture, New York, NY, Lecture

2003 Cleveland Art Museum, Cleveland, OH,  Lecture / Panelist
Yale University, New Haven, CT, Visiting Artist / Lecture / Panelist

2002 Columbus College of Art & Design, Columbus, OH, Visiting Artist / Lecture
University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, Visiting Artist / Lecture

2001 Columbia University, NY, Visiting Artist / Lecture

TEACHING
2013 “Research and Development for Fine Artists,” Winter-session course, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI

1997 “Informing Painting,” Winter-session course co-taught with Alex Blau, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI

AWARDS
2006 RISD/Target Emerging Artist Award
1996 Award of Excellence, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI
1992 Graduate Merit Fellowship, San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, CA
1991 Lillian Levinson Fellowship, University of California, Los Angeles, CA

PUBLIC & CORPORATE COLLECTIONS
Alliant Energy Corporation, Madison, WI
Fidelity Investments, Cinncinatti, OH
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA
Chicago Center for the Print, IL
Goldman Sachs Corporate Collection, NY
Harsch Investment Properties, Portland, OR
Kanders & Company, CT
Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., San Francisco, CA
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
The New York Public Library, NY
The Progressive Corporation, Mayfield, OH

Source:
Website of the artist


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