Benjamin L.M. Symbolic Expressionism

Benjamin L.M. embraces art and the art-making process with a passion that borders on reverence.

Benjamin L.M. embraces art and the art-making process with a passion that borders on reverence. For this Los Angeles-based artist painting is a transcendent, spiritual activity. Born in Melbourne, Australia, Benjamin came to art guided by his own intuition and good luck. As a young man, he was shaken to the core by the work of Salvador Dalí, glimpsed by chance in an art catalog. Some time later, when MoMa’s “William S. Paley” Collection came to town, he saw firsthand works by the great European Modernists like Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Francis Bacon. The exhibit evinced the full potential of paint as a language in its own right. This was a revelatory experience and a point of no return.

Uncompromising and unwavering in his interests, Benjamin pursued the study of art first at the Art University of Adelaide. Eventually, however, he came to believe that there is no better teacher than life itself. Benjamin left school for good, in time making his way to America, where he settled in Los Angeles. Benjamin’s paintings are both ecstatic and sensitive, symbolic and gestural, and always original.

“My figurative paintings start with the title, a meaningful thought or feeling, around which I then build the art. In my work, I go for maximum meaning, and maximum emotional impact, be it energy or calm, spiritual or earth.”

In addition to being a painter, you are also a photographer, a musician, and a writer. That is quite a broad range of interests. Do you have others to add to this list?

I’m an Artist, a painter, first, fully, only. Art is my true love. I’ve written and published five books of poetry, sometimes I like getting more feelings out with words than I can with art. I write so my art collectors, book lovers, family, and friends can know me more. I’m not a photographer, I just use my nature photos as backdrops for my quotes on social media. I’m not a musician, I’ve done two spoken word recordings, others do the music. One recording is me reading my latest book Seething With Hope On Top Of The World over experimental rock music, the other recording is two of those poems remixed into dance music under the band name Silver Slide. I’ve also done five album covers for bands, all different styles of music, from hardcore punk, to dance, to flamenco-type gypsy music.

How do you reconcile these interests? Do they exist in dialog or do they sometimes conflict with each other?

All my creative interests are in harmony, they never conflict each other. I’m all about squeezing the life out of life. Complete the mission you were put on earth to do, you can do it. What comes after earth is better. Creativity is one of the only ways to lift each other up and enlighten ourselves. I want to give power to people when they see my art and titles. Life is limited, we don’t have much time to get it right and make it happen. The time is now and I’m here to help anyone that checks me out. I’m being used for good, exactly what I want. I live this way, it’s all true, it’s all me.

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When, how, and why did painting become one of your artistic pursuits? What kind of things, in your opinion, can you express in the language of painting that cannot be expressed otherwise?

Funny story: At the end of high school I was told clearly by my Dad, “You will pursue a career in sport, that’s all you’re good at.” So I said, “Hang on, I get A grades in art and english too, I love them as much as sport!”. Nope, he wasn’t having it, “Do sport, there’s no money in art!” he said. So I had the summer to choose between pursuing a career in cricket or Australian rules football, which isn’t soccer, it’s not gridiron, it’s Australia’s unique version of football, a very skillful game. My stats for both sports were very high and consistent, as sport was my first addiction, I loved it. Then a serious highjack happened: I saw the art of Salvador Dali in a book and it completely changed what I thought art was, I had no idea it could be that brilliant. Straight after that, I saw the real paintings in the William S. Paley Collection, on loan from MoMa. Everything stopped, my world was slammed, life-changer, instant. I had no idea paint on canvas could affect me so much, I was totally dazzled. Seeing Pablo Picasso’s, Paul Cézanne’s, Paul Gauguin’s, and Francis Bacon’s paintings live showed me clearly that art is alive in art galleries in the present, it’s not an old dead thing in history books. So when the summer ended and my Dad wanted an answer, I said: “Neither, I’m doing art for the rest of my life.” He was angry and withdrew all financial backing. He didn’t even talk to me for a while. He showed his ignorance and selfishness, didn’t even ask me why I chose art over sport. Back then I just wanted to wander the earth for a while, live fully for the first time, find my creative spirit. I didn’t know anything, not even myself, so how could I possibly create art with any meaning? I couldn’t, I had to just live and teach myself how to paint. Of course, me being me, I lived so hard at that time I almost died. The best thing I did at that time was to see clearly that I can do art for my whole life, I could only do sport for ten years. I couldn’t handle the reality of doing sport as a professional, then retiring and having to do something else for the rest of my life. No way. What comes after a sports career, what, a coach, a commentator? No thanks. I’m a player and a player only, never on the outside, I need to be inside what I do. So, art it was, and art it still is, and art it will always be. I made the right choice.

As for expressing myself through the paintings, I like that there’s a bit of mystery even if you make it clear. You only have a few words in the title to state your case, it’s limited, I like that. I can’t think of anything worse than reading an epic novel with a billion words, or watching a four-hour movie and still not understanding what’s going on. In my opinion, that is a total waste of precious time. Art suits me, it’s all there, instant, defined, obvious, fast.

What specific situations inspire you to paint?

Glory And Love | Oil, acrylic and oil stick on canvas | 31.7″ x 43.7″

I’m never inspired, I just sit down, think of a title, then I do a lead pencil drawing on paper of what that title means to me. I don’t know how creative people get ‘writer’s block’, I never have that. Art comes from the spirit, through the mind. Art comes through me, not out of me. The spirit is light, the spirt is love, it’s the place where all things come from, it’s eternity. The eternal spirit comes through me as soon as I open myself to it. The spirit is endless and so are we.

I paint what the basic elements of reality have always been: love, spirituality, death, money, war, peace, time, eternity. Those things have never changed, they never will. I avoid painting about trendy happenings, specific events, or stuff that dates, like politics. All that jazz has to be overcome too, it can really drag you down, you can go insane if you think of the world and darkness from the wrong angle. I rise above everything, even good, complete freedom.

Some of your paintings are nearly completely abstract, other times you use symbols, and sometimes you work in a much more direct, gestural and emotional way. What themes or subjects inspire you to use a particular style?

I’m a figurative painter, that’s my one love, not the other styles. You say my art can be direct, gestural, and emotional, you’re right! That’s exactly what I want it to be, it’s deliberate, bold and loud. I make clear titles to spell it out, and I make the figures and scene as obvious as possible. I let loose and give it maximum meaning, I don’t worry how it comes out, the rules of perspective, shading, dimension, and technicalities be gone. The themes and subjects that make me do figurative art is what I think art is all about: Meaning, enlightenment, relating to each other, helping people, saying something, brilliant exchange.

The titles of your paintings are often unusual. Sometimes they carry a didactic, instructional message (for example “Roll the Dice and Watch the Magic Weave through your Life), other times they are a mini-narrative (“Death Blow from Above”). Could you discuss the relationship between your titles and the images you create?

I do use it to teach and give instructions, to myself first, then to anyone who sees my paintings. I’m talking directly to myself first, and keeping it all general enough that others can relate to it and enjoy it too. Like everyone, I have every single human emotion and thought in me, so I purposely focus on the good ones so I can live the good ones.

Roll The Dice And Watch The Magic Weave Through Your Life | Acrylic on Canvas | 38″ x 53″

Every time I make figurative art, same thing: The art has to match the title. Sometimes it’s clearer than others, but I don’t like confusion and ambiguity, so I make it as clear as possible. I do use symbols, but I give the meaning away in the title. I also do it so I can remember what I was talking about in the future. My version of hell is going to a beautiful art gallery at the end of my life, full of my paintings, a retrospective covering decades, and having no idea what any of them mean. Someone would ask what does this painting mean and I’d say: “No idea, sorry!”

Would it be fair to say that the theme of the struggle between darkness and light is important to you? This is quite a Romantic theme. Are you a Romantic? Who are your artistic influences?

The struggle between darkness and light is important to me, but there is no struggle. I’m dealing with light, power, and love. I like it when art is 100% positive, there’s not enough of that, there’s too much confusion, murkiness, ambiguity, or bitter-sweet themes out there. Not my trip. If I do put darkness into my paintings and titles, it’s because I have respect for it as the absence and opposite of light, but it’s far inferior. Light is King, light is Queen. Light made darkness and always has ultimate power over it. There is no struggle between darkness and light. Light will live forever, darkness won’t.

I don’t have a romantic view of reality and the past being ideal. There’s nothing romantic about darkness and the bad side of life. I’m only romantic in the other meaning of the word, personally with my Wife, Megan Matheson. I love her, I’m so blessed to be with her, she’s the best person in the world.

The most important artistic influencers to me are Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Umberto Boccioni, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Cézanne, Francis Bacon, Georges Rouault, J.M.W. Turner, Paul Gauguin, El Greco, Joel-Peter Witkin, Henri Matisse, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Auguste Rodin, Diego Rivera.

You currently reside in Los Angeles, but you are originally from Adelaide, Australia. What are your feelings about these two towns? Does L.A. seep into your work? How do these two cities inform your art practice? (If another city in Australia has played a bigger role in your life than Adelaide, then please feel free to comment on that.)

I love the USA, I’ve wanted to live here for a while, but couldn’t get a Green Card until recently. The American art market is the most powerful in the world, the art scene is electric, the taste, the gallery collections, the art collectors are the best to me. I’ve always had a love of America, even as a child, I drew from their creativity and style more than any country. I love Australia and all the family and friends who live there, but the American mind-set is the ultimate, confident, optimistic, fearless. Australians are mostly unconfident and full of fear. That’s not me, I don’t want to be around that. I love living in America and being around people I feel in-line with. I feel at home in America, I don’t feel at home in Australia. I like visiting Australia though, it’s a special place in its own way, it levels me to my roots.

Los Angeles is amazing, I chose it, I feel it, but it doesn’t seep into my work. I make art that isn’t tied to a place or time. I do allow American symbols into my art because I love the culture and mindset so much, it’s a rush of hope and power. The infinite spirit outside of time is what informs my art, not earth. I live above earth, I operate above the human condition.

Is there a question you always wanted to answer in an interview, but no one has ever asked it? If so, please go ahead.

Yes, the question is: “How do you feel when you make titles, draw, and paint art?” And my answer to that is: I go to another place, it’s like having a near-death or out-of-body experience, it’s like astral projection, and at the same time, it’s hard manual labour. Overall, it’s as good as any feeling on earth. It’s an honor to be an artist. The spirit moves through your mind, through the brushes and paint onto the canvas. I know exactly what I’m doing and I don’t know what I’m doing at the same time. It’s focused and loose. It’s primitive, holy and fun, all at once. I live for it.

As a young man, you made the decision to leave Art School and become a self-taught artist. What motivated you to take this important step? What was your education and pathway toward finding your artistic voice?

Living on the edge until I could smell death. Then wandering the earth until I found myself and locked into who I truly am. I saw what educated artists did, they copied their teacher or their idols. I didn’t want that, so I just painted until I impressed myself, until it was something I hadn’t seen before. Then I started showing them in art galleries. My education was music, books, and spiritual teachings just as much as art. I take everything in.

In what way is art connected to spirituality for you?

Art is a way to show spirituality, which is invisible and mysterious. It’s bizarre because I had revelation about spiritual stuff, and I believe it to be a certain way, but I can’t know for sure, and yet, I slam it into my art, I believe it 100%. If I had no love and joy and hope, I’d be dead. Without the spiritual, there would be no point doing art, it’s the absolute main theme that is endlessly interesting. It informs so many things that aren’t spiritual.

More about titles! Matisse used to say that if a painter wants to become great, he should “cut out his tongue.” He believed that the painter should work with great urgency to communicate everything he possibly can in paint. You seem to have a different view. For you, the words of your titles complement the image you create. The two work together. Could you comment on this?

I can see the point of Matisse, I get it, but I disagree. There’s only so much you can do with art and pictures. Titles take it to another level. Art on it’s own, with no title, is one-dimensional. If you add a very clear and strong title to that very same artwork, it becomes two-dimensional, even more. I want maximum emotion and meaning. I’m hell-bent on getting hope to people.

Collecting art is a highly involving and emotional experience. The artist’s process and intention are some of the factors that make one fall in love with his or her piece. Learn more about our artists’ creative methods and fascinating techniques in the Center Stage and Artist Techniques categories.

Benjamin L.M.’s works will be on view at Agora Gallery from March 26 through April 16, 2019. You can view more of his works on ARTmine.

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