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History is Cyclical: an interview with artist Ben Ashton

The stunning work of Ben Ashton is not soon forgotten. I remember when I first saw one of Ben’s paintings in person. Alluring and seductive in its historical detail, value, and subject matter of a beautiful portrait, it was also disturbing, as the paint on the portrait had been smeared smoothly up and to the left, where the top of the head and hair were painted without interruption. The unsettling effect was like watching someone turn into a zombie, or being introduced to an alien species who was trying its best to blend in to humanity, but betrayed himself. I couldn’t stop staring at it.

Enter the artist. Ben’s interview exclusive to Era Contemporary gives us a rare insight into the motivations and workings behind the enigmatic paintings.

EC: When did you become interested in art?

BA: Art was always around me — as my Father is a professional artist, and my Mother was the head of a creative department at a secondary school, I had no choice in the matter. I guess that I only started taking it seriously when I was at university — before then I entertained the idea of being a musician or an actor, but I saw more longevity in the occupation of artist as there was more room to expand and options became limitless.

EC: Tell us about the themes in your work recently.

BA: I’m currently focusing on the Regency period in British portraiture when Britain was expanding its ‘Empire’ and celebrating the wealth of its spoils. As we know, history is written by the victors, and as such, the Regency portrait exudes a rose-tinted view of the enormously wealthy elite of that time, basking in their successes. The British have turned to nationalism in recent years often fueled with a false nostalgia of how great these days of empire once were. Within this series I aim to make the past that some among us hold so dear, unsafe and tainted. As we move forward into an incredibly unsettled and precarious future I feel it is only right to produce paintings like this.

EC: What is your process like for creating a painting?

BA: It depends, sometimes I work from digitally altered images but at other times I like to paint a portrait faithfully, and then distort it at the last moment, which is quite nerve-wracking. I try to start my paintings in a variety of ways to avoid getting bored, but most of my technique stems from what I’ve read over the years in books and from observing old master paintings in museums. I work predominantly in oils and I have developed a recent fondness for working on paper instead of canvas or panel, as there is less preparation involved. I’ve tried to become quicker and more visceral in my process over the years, and aim for immediacy as much as possible.

EC: How have your personal experiences impacted the work you make?

BA: I’m obsessed with history generally, and find safety in the past. I find walking through museums to be a meditative experience, as they never really change that much, as environments. History is often cyclical and so I find myself reacting to current events by drawing from the past as it provides a certain context. It’s fun to subvert these old images by re imagining them in the present.
It’s also important to say that I only really paint myself and my immediate family, who I see as a small and ongoing cast of actors playing different roles. This started as the most economical way of doing things, but as time has gone on, I feel it has become a personal history and will eventually be an extremely odd and wonderful legacy to leave behind. Parts of our daily lives find their way into these paintings, sometimes by accident.

EC: What do you hope people take away from your artwork?

BA: I really don’t know — the very fact that so many people get to see them at all seems amazing to me. I love how social media has democratized art and that all different types of people are interacting with it, they are very welcome to get whatever they can from my work.

EC: Who are some of your biggest inspirations in terms of other artists, past and contemporary?

BA: I guess the artist that I have been focusing most of my attention on recently has been Thomas Lawrence who was the biggest Regency era painter, alongside him I’ve been looking at Reynolds, Gainsborough and occasionally Raeburn. I don’t see myself as inspired necessarily but more as acutely obsessed, I’ll probably move on soon and never look at these artists again, definitely a weird unhealthy relationship. I don’t tend to look at artists from the present day but have recently become interested in the Lowbrow movement that seems to shun the art establishment. I have never really been accepted by the art establishment and that feeling is mutual.

EC: What other medias influence your work (books, film, music)?

BA: Outside of art I tend to get most excitement from the world of science and physics in particular. The study of optics in relation to painting has been key to my early work and I have shown optical installations alongside my paintings when I exhibit. I am particularly interested in producing stereoscopic paintings that appear 3D when viewed through a mirror device — it’s a fun experiment as you’re presenting two different images to your visual receptors and letting your brain fool itself.

EC: What is your vision for the next few years in your art career?

BA: After I finish an arts festival in Moscow this year I plan to focus on producing another solo show, it’s been a few years since my last and I feel this body of work has reached a point where I can do that. I’ve been lucky enough to be included in lots of group shows recently but I feel it’s necessary now to bring my vision together in order for me to move on to something different.

EC: What brings you the most joy about your art practice?

BA: I think it’s the tactility of paint that brings me the most joy and the endless problem solving when beginning a painting. I was a performance artist before I started painting and although I enjoyed it I experienced a dreadful sense of anticlimax after each performance. What I love about the process of painting is the time it takes and its gradual evolution, my practice is all-involving and I have never found myself feeling bored.

EC: What is art, and what’s it for?

BA: Well art is entirely subjective, both in its nature and in its effect on the individual. Art can serve each person differently — for me I consider it to be a task that distracts me from my inevitable demise, for some it can be a method of relaxation and enjoyment, and for a privileged few art can be an investment opportunity to be hoarded in vast soulless warehouses. Art can be all these things and more but essentially visual expression has been an integral part of human existence for as long as we have known, art is and will forever be a necessity especially in these most troubling of times.

See more of Ben Ashton’s work at

Article by Jessica Libor. Jessica is an artist from Philadelphia, PA who is also the founder of Era Contemporary and the Visionary Artist’s Salon.