Carnage, chaos, cuddling. This month’s artist interview is with Ben Herbert. Ben combines sculpture, collage, and photography to create a world all his own. One that involves pup-play, a burning landscape, and exploration of the human body.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
Ben: I would describe myself as an artist, photographer, and someone who constructs images and sculptures that explore queer identity and sexuality.
Where would you say your imagery comes from?
Ben: A lot of it is self-portraiture, but it’s also a mix. I’ll use models, myself, and sometimes a mixture of the two. When I do use models, I like not having a clear identity being shown, or having the identity of the person be sort of obfuscated. I also incorporate interesting textures around me, in nature, or different materials that I can pull from to utilize in collages and sculptures. Added onto that I pull from queer fetish history and imagery especially leather culture (e.g. leather pup masks, harnesses, glory holes)
Do you go into photoshoots with an idea in mind, or do you go into the shoot with a blank slate and see what work you can make after the fact?
Ben: It’s a little bit of both. Before I take an image there’s a really big period of planning and sketching. It’s like 50/50 on if it’s gonna end up being that way.
Then sometimes it’s exactly what I planned!
How I photograph requires a lot of images in multiple sessions. I’ll take a photograph of a model, print that out, and turn it into an object or a cardboard cut-out. I’ll repeat that process, and the final step is rearranging the set up. By doing that in my practice, there’s a lot of room for play and experimentation. I’m able to have more options in arrangement and see how they change, as opposed to taking an image and that’s what it is.
What would you say is the most fun you’ve ever had on the photo shoot?
Ben: I did a recent series that was part of my undergraduate thesis, Swan Song for Fluid Exchange. For the series, I did a lot of collaging on people’s bodies. For one piece I took a photo of my friend’s butt, collaged on top of it, and turned it into the still-life of a majestic mountain.
Word of advice if you really want to get to know someone intimately you should collage on them!
I’m curious about what the apocalypse means to you and in your work?
Ben: In the last year, I felt bombarded with apocalyptic imagery: the wildfires in the West coast, climate change, and natural disasters. I’m not saying that we’re in an apocalypse, but it definitely feels like we’re approaching that at some moments.
I have a series of images titled Pup at the End of the World. I was out on an early morning run, and I saw a blood-red sun. I found out that the blood-red color was a result of smoke particles from the wildfires and that scene struck a chord with me.
I found the concept of exploring subjects like queer pleasure and body exploration set amongst a collapsing landscape interesting. In this time where we can’t escape these awful things, how do we also explore joy, acceptance, and fulfillment?
I love that! It’s also really fitting that there’s a dog howling in the audio background right now. If only this was a multisensory interview!
Can you walk me through the narrative of the Pup at the End of the World series?
Ben: There’s not necessarily a narrative in the traditional sense, but more like emotional journey of a central figure in a burning landscape, and ultimately rescued.
It starts with this pup figure asleep in a burning field, next they’re getting pulled from the burning wreckage, followed by this flood that’s washing out this fire, and then the last image is them in a safer space embracing someone after escaping destruction. I like to see each image as “operatic” where each act encapsulates a certain energy and scene.
I can’t wait until Pup at the End of the World debuts at the MET Opera. Would love to see it as a high theatric experience to the level of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung.
Ben: Yes! You’re on the invite list!
Ben Herbert and his work can be found on Instagram @bbenherbertt and his website www.ben-herbert.com. He recently relocated to Chicago, IL, after finishing his BFA at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.