Ana Benaroya

Poetic Justice

Interview by Kristin Farr and portrait by Laura June Kirsch

The great and powerful Oz was revered and feared, but secretly, a humble and quiet creator, empowering an alter-ego to express his emerald-hued, fiery feelings. Ana Benaroya’s fervent paintings are akin to the Wizard’s approach, but they speak for her rage as a female, which, considering global cultures and the perpetration of varying levels of violence, remains a second-class gender or worse. Power prevails in these paintings as they scream the anguish of perceived inferiority and fight for control over the body and its intentions. Identity is deeply embedded, and if the message sounds loud, such volume is necessary.

Ana Benaroya: Poetic Justice
Hot House, Spray paint, oil and acrylic on canvas, 82.7” x 74.8”, 2019
Kristin Farr: Do you focus more on action, emotion, gesture or color in your paintings? Or something else?
Ana Benaroya: All my paintings start with emotion and character. I think about what the person in my painting is feeling and how they are connecting with others in or outside the picture plane. Narrative is always present, but it’s usually loose. Emotion and human connection is really at the core of most of my work. Color comes in later, while I’m painting it. It’s something I can rarely plan. I need to respond to colors that are already on the painting. 
Let’s talk about your zine, Men Burning in Hell. It has a nice ring to it. That was published by Devin Troy Strother’s company? The title seems like a thread throughout all of your work: burning down the patriarchy. 
Yes! It was published by Coloured Publishing, which is run by Devin Troy Strother and Yuri Ogita. Devin asked me to make a zine, and I decided to do a series of drawings of men literally burning in hell. You could say that’s a consistent theme in my work, though recently my paintings have been focusing more on women. I have this intense burning anger inside of me that I’ve had ever since I was a little girl. Whenever I figured out women are essentially second class citizens, this fire started burning and it hasn’t been put out yet. Thankfully, I am able to channel it into something productive like art.

Ana Benaroya: Poetic Justice
With One Burning Thought, Spray paint, oil and acrylic on canvas, 20” x 24”, 2019
How did your style and interest in bodies and musculature develop? Start at the beginning—what did you draw as a kid? What were your favorite toys?
It started with looking at superhero comics and pictures of athletes. I collected action figures and sports cards. I’d copy from comics and pictures of athletes to make my drawings, and then eventually started copying from an anatomy book. I really identified with the muscular, masculine figure. I loved how big and powerful it was, how it moved through the world, and how people seemed to take that body seriously. I was a huge tomboy and always thought boys clothing felt right, and preferred action figures to Barbies and dolls. I was fixated on learning how to draw each and every muscle, to the point where I completely neglected drawing the female figure. 
I remember thinking, when I was younger, that I needed to make my drawings so nobody would guess a girl drew it. Obviously, I had internalized a lot of the terrible sexist things that women in our society deal with, and my solution was to just ignore and diminish anything I associated with the feminine. It wasn’t until later, in college, that I became conscious of what I was doing. I’m still working through some of these issues in my work now. 
How are body parts symbolic in the work? They seem to be independent and powerful. 
I do think that each and every body part of the figures in my paintings, from a strand of hair to a nipple, is operating independently. It’s as though each body part has its own brain and nervous system. Every part of the body is very much alive and active, at its most extreme moment, both physically and emotionally. I guess there’s part of me that wishes my body could do that. I always hope to have the body reflect and respond to the emotional life of the character. In the moment we see them in the painting, they are in their truest form, there is nothing hidden, and they have no regrets. 

Ana Benaroya: Poetic Justice
She Learned Her Hands in a Fairytale
"Good music connects to your heart before your brain has a chance to catch up. That’s how I try to make my paintings."


Tell me about your titles and pop culture references. Do titles inspire paintings or vice versa? 
I almost always think of a title during or after I make a painting. It feels important to give the viewer a little context or hint, or sense of emotion through the title. It’s part of the piece for me. I have always liked writing short stories, so the title is like one sentence in the story of the painting. Either it’s fully written by me, or I pull a line from a song I’m listening to, or a poem I like. I like that if someone is interested, they could go and listen to the song or read the poem, and maybe gain even a little more insight into the painting. I think the titles also firmly place my paintings in the world of the poetic. Poetry and music encapsulate emotion so clearly without defining it… this is what I want my paintings to do.

Ana Benaroya: Poetic Justice
Midnight in a Madhouse, Spray paint, oil and acrylic on canvas, 70.9” x 59”, 2019 
What role does music play in your work?
I used to play piano and clarinet. I was in the concert band, the jazz band, and the marching band, so I have that connection, and I’ve always been into all sorts of music, from classical to jazz, rock from the ’50s and ’60s, to ’90s dance, hip hop, opera… even a little country sometimes. I’m always making playlists for people and for myself, and always listening while I paint. 
The new work I just finished for my solo show at Richard Heller is a series of paintings of an imaginary cafe where women come to meet, play and listen to music, smoke and dance. Music is what holds this show together. It’s this invisible yet palpable thing that runs through all the paintings and the space between them. Music relates to the idea of pure emotion without rationality getting in the way. Good music connects to your heart before your brain has a chance to catch up. That’s how I try to make my paintings.
When I was little, whenever I’d listen to a song, I’d imagine that I was the one singing it, performing in front of all my friends. Regardless of whether the singer was male or female, music would allow me to escape my body temporarily and live in this other imaginary world. I think my paintings serve a similar function for me.

Ana Benaroya: Poetic Justice
Sunrise, Sunset,Spray paint, oil and acrylic on canvas, 19.75” x 23.75”, 2019 
What else do the paintings help you communicate that is difficult to talk about?
Just about everything! I’m a pretty quiet and sometimes shy person. My new year’s resolution is actually to say what’s on my mind more often. I pour a lot of my emotion and internal life into my paintings. My paintings are just as much me as I am me, if that makes any sense, even though my paintings and my outward personality appear to be opposites. 
Do you get into a hypnotic zone in the studio? The paintings seem so energetic, like they would be painted furiously to music, and you’re the conductor. 
Sometimes! That’s the best when that happens. I have moments of energetic painting and other moments of just sitting back and looking, trying to figure out what the next move is. I don’t agonize over paintings most of the time. I like to just keep moving, keep making another painting. Whatever I learn in one, I’ll bring to the next. I’m not much for endless revisions. I like imperfection in my paintings. 
What’s the last song you listened to on a loop?
You seem really good at painting souls. That’s the best I can describe it. Do you think about revealing souls through art? The good and bad ones?
Wow, thank you. To me, that’s the highest compliment. I guess I never thought about it as souls before, but as I mentioned, I try to have each character in my paintings be revealed fully, in their truest form. Maybe that’s part of it. 
And even when I’m painting a figure with the aim to criticize something, it’s never from a place of negativity. I don’t think I ever paint a bad soul. There’s always joy, even within darker paintings.

Ana Benaroya: Poetic Justice
Smoke Dreams
Do you smoke? Why is smoking part of your vocabulary in the work?
It’s funny, I actually don’t smoke. I’ve never even tried it. I’ve always thought of smoking as cool, and when women smoke, they seem powerful and sexy. On one level, painting smoke is a really fun challenge. I enjoy finding different ways to render it. I also like that is not tangible and eventually evaporates into the air—it creates an atmosphere in the painting. 
For the paintings in my upcoming show, smoke and music fill the air… two somewhat invisible things within a painting. Also, I like to think of the smoke as a silent dialogue bubble—like a text bubble you see in comics. 
You authored Illustration Next, so you’re a good person to ask an age-old question: what, in your mind, is the line between art and illustration? I think about illustration having a brief, whereas art doesn’t, but otherwise most “illustrators” I interview are just like any other artist. 
I don’t see much difference other than what you mentioned, that one begins with a brief, and also that it ultimately is reproduced in print or online. There are just as many types of illustrators as there are types of artists… so I’ve always thought to compare the two was kinda ridiculous. Also, the hierarchy that puts fine art above illustration really bothers me. If you’re good, you’re good, whether you make paintings, or illustrations, or comics, or tapestries, or sculptures, or videos, or animations.

Ana Benaroya: Poetic Justice
For Two In Three, Spray paint, oil and acrylic on canvas, 23.6” x 19.7”, 2019
That idea is part of the foundation of Juxtapoz. Describe your ideal dinner party, including guests, food and music. 
Chinese delivery, sweet delicious cocktails in beautiful glasses, all my closest friends and family. I have one long playlist I created for the evening, and a few artists whose work I love but whom I’ve never met, and some, I would like to: Nicole Eisenman, Carroll Dunham, Tom of Finland, Keith Haring, Robert Colescott, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Henri Matisse...
Why Matisse? Many artists have mentioned him lately. 
The perceived simplicity and ease of his paintings is so appealing to me. Not to mention his use of line and crazy, amazing color. I’m always impressed by artists who can do things simply in their work since I’m such a maximalist in mine. And I equally love his paintings and his cut-paper work. He was able to be both painterly and graphic, something I’m always trying to achieve as well. 
If your work is between Highbrow and Lowbrow, what are the parts you absorb from each? 
My goal is always to have my work be accessible on many levels. I’d like anyone to be able to walk up to one of my paintings and understand what’s happening, and relate aesthetically, even if it’s not their taste. For this reason, I draw a lot of my visual vocabulary from pop culture, whether it be concert posters, advertising, bright commercial colors, cartoons, or illustrations. 
My hope would be that an artist or curator or writer, someone with more of an art education and background in art history, would also be able to walk up to my paintings and find other levels of interest. As much as I look at popular and commercial culture for inspiration, I also look to art history and other artists.

Ana Benaroya: Poetic Justice
You’re Clear Out Of This World (When I’m Looking at You), Spray paint, oil and acrylic on canvas, 47.2” x 39.4”, 2019
Where would you time-travel to if you had the ability?
I think about time-traveling a lot, and I’d love to see NYC in the ’80s, and also in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s! I just love New York and am fascinated by all the interesting artists and musicians who came through and made it what it is today. I wish I could travel back and be a fly on the wall when they were alive. 
Tell me about growing up there and around your studio in Jersey City. 
I was born in New York and spent the first few years of my life in Flushing, Queens. We lived in the same building as my grandparents, just down the hall. My dad got a job at Rutgers, so we moved to New Jersey, which is where I grew up. My grandma still lives in the same apartment building in Flushing, so we visit often. I’ve been living in Jersey City since 2011, minus the two years I spent at Yale
My studio is small but efficient. I managed to make four very large paintings there, despite the size, which makes me proud. It has nice light and the vibe is good. It’s in an old dormitory that was used for either nuns or nursing students… I forget which! And now the building is also used as a Montessori School, so it's a funny mix of artists and schoolchildren.

Ana Benaroya: Poetic Justice
Up In Flames, Spray paint, acrylic, oil and oil stick on canvas, 11.8” x 15.7”, 2019
How did school affect what you paint? And what’s post-grad life been like so far?
School affected me so much! It didn’t affect my subject matter, per se, but I think I grew a lot both technically as a painter and also intellectually. My training previous to Yale was as an illustrator and designer. I never had a formal fine art background. I had taken art history courses, but never theory or anything of the sort. I only started painting more seriously a few years before. Most of my work was drawing, printmaking, and digital, and Yale was two very intense years where you are forced to focus on your work and constantly defend it, which made me stronger and more confident. And, really, the best part was being able to learn from and be inspired by all my talented classmates. 
Post-grad life has been great, too. While I loved getting all this attention and feedback at school, it’s nice to have a bit more quiet in the studio, with fewer voices running through your head as you create. 
What’s coming up in 2020? 
My solo show with Richard Heller in February, and I’m currently at a month-long residency at Palazzo Monti in Brescia, Italy. Later this year, I have a solo show in NYC with Ross + Kramer Gallery.

Ana Benaroya: Poetic Justice
Origins of the World, Spray paint, oil and acrylic on canvas, 39.4” x 47.2”, 2019
How’s Italy?
Great! This is my first time making work outside my studio, so it’s an adjustment, but I’m loving working alongside my fellow residents. It’s too early to see how Italy is affecting my work, but I’ve done some drawing and have three new paintings in progress. I’m eating as much pasta, pizza and gelato as I can before I leave!
And what does Celine Dion mean to you?
I am obsessed with Celine Dion. My brother and I used to dance to her music when we were younger. She’s just such a character, and you wouldn’t necessarily expect that from listening to her music. Not that I know her, but from what I’ve watched and read, she seems really pleasantly strange and funny. And I just love how dramatic and over-the-top her songs are, plus you can’t deny that she has an amazing voice. 
I saw her perform last year in Vegas and I loved everything about it. I also love Las Vegas. It’s also so interesting to me how her music connects with such a wide variety of people, yet seems really true to her. I think that combination of genuine, yet pop, is rare. We really are blessed to be alive at the same time as Celine Dion, no doubt in my mind. She's a beacon of positivity and love—I just wanna soak it all up!

Ana Benaroya: Poetic Justice
Reservation For Two, Please, Spray paint, acrylic and oil on canvas, 24” x 20”, 2019
Why do you love Vegas?
I feel like it’s the most honestly American city. What you see is what you get. It’s campy, tacky, overwhelming and fun. I love walking through the casinos and seeing the shows. It’s the perfect mindless vacation. A manmade monstrosity that is strangely beautiful and terrible, and it keeps me wanting more.
Ana Benaroya’s solo show, Teach Me Tonight, is on view at Richard Heller Gallery in Los Angeles through March 28, 2020.

Portrait by Laura June Kirsch 

portrait by Laura June Kirsch