The Anxious Artist: Talks Art with Alex and Ben
Updated: Oct 29, 2022
As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, I attend Core Arts, which is an arts project in Hackney that supports mental health recovery. There is an impressive compliment of staff, with a vast range of experience and expertise. There, I have been helped to self-identify as an artist, which has been such a boost to my self-esteem. Mental health struggles do very little for one’s confidence. People can often lose their sense of identity to a list of traits found on the diagnostic criteria for whatever ‘disorder’ they have been labelled with. Core Arts has offered me the opportunity to remember who I am.
Core Arts, Hackney
I am always so inspired by the artists I have met at Core Arts, who have had their own journeys and have found the space to develop creatively. It is so important for artists to connect with one another, so we can share ideas and motivate each other to persevere with whatever projects are being worked on. Otherwise, it is easy to stagnate when working in isolation. I find I become very introspective and quickly begin questioning the value in what I am doing and think I should be doing something more ‘useful’. These thoughts are pretty destructive.
For these reasons, it was a delight to spend time with two artists who I met at Core Arts and admire greatly for their beautiful artwork and their commitment to being creative. Alex Ingram and Ben Gooch are now well-established artists and the best of pals. Apparently they first met when they were randomly paired to have an exhibition together and there was a bit of a bust up. I was keen to hear more, but that’s another story for another time! Ben and Alex each have very different creative backgrounds and this is reflected in how they approach their work. However, it is clear they learn a great deal from one another’s practice.
Ben was really keen to talk to me and excited about the Anxious Artist blog, but expressed some doubt that he would be able to speak with eloquence about his work. Ben is a self-taught artist and has not had a formal education in art and wonders if this puts him at a disadvantage. To me, I can only feel so impressed with his tenacity, as he has clearly been incredibly dedicated to finding his way to establishing his creative identity. Ben now produces work with his own recognisable and unique style that demonstrates the confidence of a mature artist. I sometimes wonder if my art schooling has held me back, as I was not taught the basic disciplines of art making, but had to conform to what was fashionable at the time. This wasn’t necessarily what I was interested in, but I wanted to get my degree.
By contrast to Ben, Alex has been to art school and attained a masters level degree. He is very confident in talking about his creative process, which he is clearly equally committed to. He kicked off the conversation by talking about this. Alex paints prolifically, usually in oils. He paints evocative imagined skyscapes, which are produced at speed and with a sense of immediacy. Alex seeks to avoid overworking his paintings, which creates a sense of life and energy. His work is very intuitive and expressive, capturing a specific moment in time. He is currently interested in pushing his paintings into a more abstract territory, achieved through experimentation with colour and mark making. Alex avoids the drawn line, preferring his paintings to take on their own life, delivering unexpected results.
I was interested to hear him describe his working process as a kind of performance, which begins, perhaps with a walk in the forest next to his home, allowing his unconscious mind to wander. The performance may also begin in his daily painting practice, maybe through staring at a blank canvas until he is ready to pick up the brush and mix the colours he is instinctively drawn to. Alex expressed interest in the apparent randomness of this process and was clear that the decisions he made took place on an unconscious level, which he is then compelled to respond to and explore. He stressed the performance element in making art as being as important as the completion of the work. Alex described this as being the moment he can stand back and appreciate 'a moment of beauty.'
Untitled. Oil on Canvas Board, paintings by Alex Ingram
Alex then began to consider his relationship with the wider artworld and his place in it. He wondered if it is the artist’s role to please the needs of others, or whether it was ok to make art to please oneself and still be appreciated by potential buyers. Who is it, after all, that we make art for? Alex spoke about needing to maintain the regular discipline of making as without doing so he begins to question his identity as an artist. He said there were often times that he would notice he was not enjoying the creating of art, but rather the pleasure being derived from the completion of the process, at the point of letting go. The point at which he can step back. He reflected that abstract painter Howard Hodgkin had expressed a similar sentiment.
Alex has left Core Arts, having attended for 16 years and is now reaching out to local art groups and organisations in his area. He works hard to promote his work online and tries to exhibit regularly. He expressed interest in what other people take away from his paintings, sometimes seeing something that he hadn't felt or noticed himself. Alex reflected that once the painting is completed, at whichever seemingly random moment this may be, he himself feels like a stranger as he comes to view the work he has created, yet has detached himself from. I was interested in this idea that the artist somehow relinquishes any sense of control, surrendering to the unconscious process. This idea seems to challenge the notion of the elevated status of the artist, whom is in fact part of something much bigger; a tool, akin to the brush or the tube of pigment. The artwork itself, takes on a life of it's own and is constantly evolving each time it is viewed.
Night and Day by Howard Hodgkin. 1997-9.
Despite his reservations, Ben spoke with great eloquence about his work and creative process. Although I don’t like to define artists in a restrictive way, Ben is most interested in printmaking and painting. In contrast to Alex, his work evolves over a more extended period of time. Each decision is carefully considered, as he described reaching crossroads when making art. He spoke of the awareness that at each stage the artwork could take a new direction, which may have a good or less satisfactory outcome. This is such an abstract concept to define; how do we know if an artwork is working or not? On discussing this, we all felt that how we feel about our artwork changes from moment to moment. I reflected afterwards on the crossroads we all arrive at in life on a regular basis and if there is ever a 'right' direction to take. Or, is it that we choose just one option amongst many thousands, which each have both pros and cons. It always fascinates me that the way we approach art making is so reflective of problem solving challenges in our daily life.
Ben’s prints are mixed media and involve a series of stages and processes, and are limited editions due to their complexity. He incorporates drypoint etching, wood and lino cuts and chine colle (the layering of translucent coloured tissue paper, which is then printed on top of). The prints are of local buildings which are personal landmarks for Ben in Hackney. He then lovingly embellishes them with a vibrant array of flowers and natural foliage. The various facets of the process come together to create a harmonious celebration of places which Ben clearly has a great attachment to.
Hackney Wick Station. Mixed Media, by Ben Gooch.
Ben is a regular attendee of life drawing classes. His work shows such confidence and an enjoyment of representing the human physical form. When he is drawing, Ben describes his process of uncovering the already present line. This is in contrast to Alex's process which resists the defined preconception in the drawn line. Ben intends to use some of these drawings to create a painting that has a narrative. He wants to explore bringing the separate drawings and models together and projecting them into an interior scene. Within this imagined scene of Ben’s creation, we would then be curious as to what the relationships are between the different subjects and what might be happening in the space they have been positioned in. Again, plants will be positioned within the interior, giving the image a personal touch and sense of homeliness and warmth. Each viewer will derive their own story and imbue meaning from what is being played out before them. I really look forward to seeing what emerges.
Life drawing and work in progress, by Ben Gooch.
Ben is an admirer of David Hockney and I can certainly see his influence in the technique and style Ben employs, but has made his own. He particularly enjoys the etchings Hockney made in the 1960s. These were also often domestic interiors in which there were figures, usually Hockney and his partner and a narrative which was up to the viewer to decide upon. Ben admires how Hockney has utilised new techniques and technology throughout his career and so his work is always evolving.
Two Boys Aged 23 and 24 from ‘Illustrations For Fourteen Poems’ from C.P. Cavafy, 1966-7. Etching by David Hockney.
Ben attends a variety of classes to develop his skill set and makes time to read about art technique and theory, of which he is very knowledgeable. He questions the role of mental illness in being the stereotypical necessary component of being an artist, as he said he felt at his least creative when he was unwell. Alex agreed with this, describing his work at these times as disjointed and chaotic. Both agreed there is a need to be able to step back from oneself and our internal dialogue in order to find the space to create freely.
After our conversation, I came away feeling such gratitude towards these two very talented artists, who made time to talk about their work with me. The conversation gave me a renewed sense of certainty in my own identity as an artist, as I related personally to so much of what was being discussed. I felt I learnt a great deal from them both, each with their own unique style and approach to what they love to do. I reflected how important it is that we artists make time for one another, to be kind and encouraging of one another. The art world is certainly very tough indeed and it takes a huge amount of tenacity, energy and commitment to keep afloat and goodness knows, we all need a little bit of extra kindness anyway. Most artists are very unlikely to get rich, or even close, but we wouldn’t have it any other way because we are doing what we love and could not survive without. I hope to meet with Ben and Alex again and to keep the conversation going.
By Naomi Elfred-Ross
If you have enjoyed reading about Alex and Ben’s work and enjoy their stunning work as much as I do, you can find out more by exploring the following links: