Ben Darrah is one of my favourite artists. We’ve known each other a long time, more than thirty years, I’d say. We’ve never hung out together, but we’ve talked a bit, and swapped some thoughts, and remained respectful of each other’s efforts over the decades. Ben’s a teacher too, and I see him once in a while when I’m picking up or dropping off my kids at Central and he’s doing a supply gig there. The kids got lucky today, that’s my usual response to those sightings.
I have a couple of small works by Ben up in my house. One of them, of two deer set against a wobbly beige grid, is in the bright kitchen above a comfortable chair. I sit opposite that chair so that I can contemplate the work most days, even if it’s only for a second or two. Its existence enriches my life, thickens the day’s mental soup.
He’ll post on Facebook too. He’s restored an old bike in recent months and will report on distance covered, and average speed. He’ll make modest predictions for future improvement. It’s all very straightforward. He writes these updates, it seems to me, with no apparent need to impress his audience, and doesn’t worry in the slightest about the newsworthiness of his adventures. He’s sharing, that’s all he’s doing. He’s putting it out there. It’s something I wish I was better at. I tend to talk or write when I’m angry, or sad, or when I’ve got a new place to sell, an axe to grind. I write at the feet of John Osborne, spitting teeth at the audience and engaging with them only on a vituperative level, while Ben chats away happily and openly on the other side of the room. I know which of us probably makes better company most of the time.
His art is very serious stuff, at least to my eye. His palate may be brighter, more effervescent sometimes than it used to be, and the work is eminently approachable, but it’s also intellectually dense, a tricky, rewarding read.
There is usually a tangible tension in Ben’s work between organization – often embodied by a background grid or striping – and a more chaotic foreground. Sometimes that chaos is unabashedly violent – the stenciled cops going at a demonstrator in Cy’s Protest, for example, the beating not really obscured at all by hazy clouds of red scribble. And sometimes the threat is only implied and remains somehow just off-screen. Maybe that’s what all those proud alert stags are about, each of them nosing the breeze and caught at that moment before hectic flight.
I don’t know for sure what it is Ben is after with his work. I’ve deliberately not read his explanations and thoughts before beginning this little tribute. He reminds me sometimes (and I mean this in the best possible way) of Douglas Copeland, who strives much more bluntly to create images reeking of Canada. With Copeland it feels as if he is trying to give us a new flag. With Ben it’s as if he is trying for something more internal. Archetype is the word that gets bandied around a lot, but it’s not the beast slouching towards Bethlehem that Ben’s after. He wants to remind us instead of how deeply imprinted in us the folding lawn chairs are, or the lego block, or that stag again, proud at the top of the hill, or the visored riot cops with their raised truncheons.
I’m also reminded of the fashionable recent theories of Nick Bostrom, a British philosopher who has posited that we might all be living in some sort of Matrixey simulation, and that the only way to determine if that’s true or not is to search for some deterioration of the fabric we’ve been embroidered onto, some flickering of the pixels at the outer fringes of this sky-wide screen. (A good access point for some of his work is here, via the great site, Kottke.) If Bostrom ever writes a book for the masses he should beg Ben to provide the artistic proofs for his arguments.
But I digress. I’m a fan. That’s really all I wanted to say. It’s a shout-out to a friend who’s damn good at what he does.