Wherever I May Roam: A Conversation with Textile Artists Ben Venom and Alex Ziv
Although the timing of their two-person exhibition, Wherever I May Roam, could not have been more unfortunate, textile artists Ben Venom and Alex Ziv are some of the most exciting working today in taking traditional crafts and transforming them into contemporary culture. Their works, shown together at Hashimoto Contemporary in San Francisco (the gallery is appointment only now), are a reminder that the outsider cultures that we soak in today (heavy metal music, skate, fashion) are indeed, all parts of a narrative of our lives. Those stories become the materials for their work, folklore and almost in a secret language passed down. Here is their conversation based on the Wherever I May Roam exhibition.
Where did the title of the show come from?
Alex Ziv: Ben and I spoke for a little about what we felt best exemplified the work and, I think, it fits well. Wherever I May Roam is a Metallica song that ties closely to Ben's work, and best embodies the first body of work that’s reflective of me being on the road... "roaming," I suppose.
Both of you are SF Art Institute alums. Did you meet through the program or independently?
AZ: A little bit of both. I think we actually started saying hey to one another while I was in the thick of the SFAI BFA program. We'd often see each other around the show circuit in San Francisco too. Ben is big time and, back then, I was always a little intimidated by artists who were killing it.
Ben Venom: I believe we met through the San Francisco art scene, as I was at SFAI in the Master of Fine Arts program prior to Alex, and he was in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program a few years after I graduated.
Your work is really different from each other but shares a lot of overlapping elements, such as motorcycle and metal culture–a visual vernacular that feels almost ritualistic in a very contemporary way with a balance of aggressiveness and sensitivity. How do you view each other’s work in this context of a duo exhibition?
BV: Our pieces work well together because we have overlapping interests, yet drastically different mediums. The work speaks to a similar audience but in its own unique voice, assaulting the viewer from all sides.
AZ: I think ritualistic is a good term for a couple of reasons. I think both Ben and I are attracted to creating imagery that takes the form of iconography. Singular or multifaceted images placed in the center of a frame so as to bring the eye to the center. Bold colors both add strength to already imposing imagery, and add context or mood. While I've moved away from making work about motorcycle culture, I think the pieces retain a much different, yet very similar kind of power to the work I made before hitting the road. I feel that power stems from color usage, choosing what to paint, and how it is painted or executed. Powerful imagery executed in a sensitive way and made with care. Also, Ben and I are both very ritualistic in how we execute our work. I show up to my studio in the mountains around the same time every day, paint methodically, technically and intensively for 8-10 hours a day, like clockwork. Like a ritual. I strive to hit the same clean line over and over while painting patterns or shapes. Just like, I'm sure, Ben tries to hit the same perfect, straight as an arrow stitch is his quilt works. How we work will definitely be seen sharing threads (no pun intended) from across the space.
There is a deep respect for craft in each of your practices, with Alex's depiction of silversmithing and traditional jewelry and Ben's use of textiles and quilting. What do you find most compelling about those aspects of your practice?
BV: Textiles allow me to push my art beyond a precious object simply hanging on the wall. They allow my work to become a fusion of art, fashion and, especially, function.
AZ: Sometimes we're attracted or drawn to objects, places and imagery, but don't know why. Deep down there is a reason and, maybe, it's because we identify and relate to how those things, places, and objects present themselves to the world. I'm not a silversmith, but that hasn't kept me from going headfirst down the rabbit hole of its history, importance, symbolism, and the practice of making silver in the Southwest. I find the resilience of silver as a material compelling, but I find the reasons for shaping silver, and the artists who shaped it, even more compelling. Artists see across technical boundaries, and while my practice is, kind of, the reciprocal of shaping precious metals, I greatly admire the technical and symbolic forms I see in the materials I choose to both collect and paint. There is a story in everything you touch and hold. I also don't think you need to be a maker of anything to appreciate and enjoy all types of craft and craftsmanship. We like what we like, there doesn't always have to be an answer as to why.
Personal histories and the communities around you are also deeply embedded within each of your practices. How do both of you approach incorporating the various symbols of these communities into your work?
BV: By stitching donated fabrics into a unified piece, the quilts are able to display a multitude of personal histories. Everyone’s unexplained stain, tear, or rip is included and, when displayed, visitors can see a piece of themselves woven into this larger history. A collection of memories, dreams, and past experiences are on view in the form of a functional quilt.
AZ: I think it's kind of ironic that my work took form in representing the communities I surrounded myself with, even though the whole intention of going on the road was for me to be completely alone, lost in open space. It goes to show that you can't help but to reflect what you have been exposed to, experienced, and who or what left the biggest impression. While I was out for a year, I spent, probably, seven or eight of those months in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, especially the "four corners" region where they all meet. Each of those states is overflowing with history and culture, both present and erased, indigenous and westernized, symbolic and purely utilitarian. When pictorial depictions are the chosen means of describing your surroundings, feelings, and experiences, you find a quick relation. I take from what I saw and see today, both historical and planted by others, to create a visual language that best exemplifies my own personal experience, identity, and story. It's also about education and keeping traditions as well as cultures in the light. A pot may not just be a pot, a flower just a flower, a necklace may not be just a necklace. There are many histories, cultures, and people who have been marginalized, overlooked and swept away from the areas I visited, and by depicting tropes, imagery and iconography that are both personal and historical interpretations, I hope people remember that they are still very much alive, breathing, and important.
Are there any components incorporated into these works that have a particularly memorable story? A special piece of jewelry or scrap of fabric that came with an interesting tale?
BV: The FLEX YOUR HEAD quilt is comprised of donated jeans from my wife, brother-in-law, and good friend Kevin E. Taylor’s grandfather who recently passed away. Each pair of jeans has their own history and story to tell, which makes the piece not just mine but all of ours.
AZ: Every piece painted in the new work is in a personal collection for reference. Every one of them has a story of their own before they were collected. But my favorite is probably the spider web eyes in The Spirit of Carrizozo. My dog and I were out on an 8-mile loop hike in Canyonlands National Park when a super fucked up torrential rain and hail storm blew through. We finally made it back to the car, soaked, defeated and cold. It was about 29 degrees and there was nowhere with enough cover to make a fire while it was pouring. We were bummed. We were on the edge of the National park, and through the superfine and thick red rock mud came this "SHLUYUP SHLUYP". My dog Amy starts snarling and barking at this dude who came out of the sagebrush riding the biggest horse I've ever seen in my fucking life. His name was Clark Daniels. He said we looked cold and offered his barn just on the outside edge of the park to sleep in and his dryer to dry my clothes in. He had the dream property. We got a good buzz going on and, in the morning, I helped him move a few dozen hay bales and some livestock, as thanks for letting us stay (he had to have been in his late 70's). He gave me a vest with the spider web pin those eyes are painted from. He said if I took it off the vest, it would create some incredibly bad luck. It's been there ever since.
The show's relationship to functionality is really interesting. A lot of Alex's subjects feel like they should be worn and used, but the work itself functions as a painting. Meanwhile, Ben's work, which hangs on the wall, functions as a quilt or wearable piece. How do you see the viewer's relationship to work on the wall versus in the wild?
BV: I believe my practice can operate in three different worlds: fine art, craft, and fashion. I am always interested in the context the work is presented, be it on the street or in a museum. It is never static.
AZ: Each piece I paint has allegorical motifs, either as part of their construction or symbolic function, not just when being worn. The Story Teller bracelets have entire stories carved or inlaid onto them, and others see that story even when not wearing the pieces themselves. They are visual, tactile and utilitarian, and, symbolically, don't need to be worn to represent themselves and convey meaning. You can read an entire story based on what someone wears, what those worn objects represent, and never hear a word spoken. Visual storytelling through objects is what I hope to achieve. After folks see this work, I hope they look at what I've depicted in a different and new way.
Ben, sewing, patch-making and battle jackets feel so inherently tied to the punk scene. Your work feels like an extension of that in a lot of ways. Were the seeds of your current practice rooted in your Atlanta punk days, both in the music itself and DIY mentality?
BV: When I was around 11 years old, my cousin Jason gave me a Vision skateboard deck and it was all downhill from there. As a teenager, I was introduced to the Atlanta punk rock scene and became a follower of D.I.Y. This mentality carried me through my teenage years and into adulthood. Basically, don’t ever let anything hinder you from seeing your ideas through to the end. When I began sewing, I had no idea what I was doing… simply a concept I wanted to create.
What are you excited about in each other’s work?
AZ: I'm super excited to see Ben's work taking on more complex patterns, shapes and scales. I've always been a fan of the quilts, and seeing him branch out into making fully functioning jackets has me super excited.
BV: I'm excited to see how his recent travels emerge in this new body of work.
Any other big projects coming up?
AZ: My biggest project is always to continue painting full time here in the mountains. Being self-employed, and painting full time is difficult, stressful and you are always on the clock. But after making it work for a couple of years straight now, I'll never go back to working for the man again. Aside from living, I'm really already producing a new body of work titled " The Four Corners", and I'm excited to see where the road leads.
BV: Death Cult at the Torrance Art Museum, Here and Now: A Survey on New Contemporary Art at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Sew What at The University of Kentucky Art Museum and a commissioned quilt for Thrasher magazine.