Ben Aitken is by no means a household name, yet his paintings harbor a beautiful intensity and intrigue, which instantly commands your attention. In a digital world flooded with media how does one be seen amongst the clutter of a million Instagram snaps and Facebook memes. The selfie reigns supreme as a primitive form of self-expression, showcasing an idealized representation of ourselves. Culturally we are advertising to our friends through social media and secretly counting FB likes, learning and adjusting our behavior and posts to maximize our social value. The value of art however is continually being degraded as technology allows the masses to partake in what was once the domain of a select few.
So I find myself standing in a warehouse in the suburbs of Melbourne. The floor is littered with blotches of colour, which bring life to what was once a dull mechanics workshop. I think back to the random series of events that landed me here; a diamond amongst the rough, a single portrait of a friend of mine, which somehow amongst the clutter of Facebook advertising and meaningless babble appeared atop of my newsfeed. Whilst I recognized my friend in the painting I was transfixed by the magnified intensity of the portrait, his personality viscerally exposed on canvas. The detail demands your attention for more than just a few seconds and hitting ‘like’ seems painfully inadequate as a show of support.
Cycle forward several weeks and I find myself face to face with the artist (Ben Aitken) gazing upon a dozen or so larger than life portraits in his studio. His work serves as a critique on the traditions and values of portraiture. The room feels busy and crowded, each painting has a unique personality and presence and I can’t help but feel as though I’m meeting a whole group of new people. For a moment in time I am transferred into his world of colour as dark ambient electronic beats drone in the background.
He tells me he began as a graffiti artist at the age of 16, taking up art class in high school, as its subjective nature would guarantee him a pass. Fast forward several years, Bens work has been displayed in many commercial galleries and he finds himself working for hours on his art, 4-5 days a week. Although having achieved some commercial success he details some of the struggles an artist can face. Galleries often rent out the space, do little promotion and take large commissions on the works sold. Furthermore, artists can find themselves in a position where they remain relatively unknown despite their success; as works are often purchased based on the reputation of the gallery, rather than the artist. However it was these struggles, which inspired his latest series of work signaling that it was time to “paint for myself” and pushing him to break new ground to create something that was “unique” and hopes to leave an imprint on Australian Art as his career progresses.
His portraits are based not only on the still life photos of his subjects but attempt to capture their personality and frame of mind. As he paints, pre recorded audiotapes drone on in the background as his subjects discuss their lives and the daily challenges they face. On his creative process Ben says, “Spontaneity brings out the best in my work” and “I don’t actively censor myself” which often leads to mistakes, however these mistakes can take the painting in a new direction and often end up enhancing the portrait.
Our conversation steers towards the topic of Art Auction houses and I suddenly gain a startling insight into the industry. While these institutions can be beneficial for artists in selling their work, setting a reserve price for a painting is a necessity. These reserve (minimum) prices are set by licensed valuers, who base the paintings value on 3 core principles; its provenance (who has owned the painting) and where it has been shown or exhibited and what awards it has won. It seems that the more fame or exposure, the greater the reserve. Whilst this may seem like basic supply and demand it begs the question, how does a talented artist make a living off his work if he doesn’t have the exposure yet and cannot get a reserve on a painting? Is the value of art being relegated once again to fame and social value? In a broader sense this may explain why culturally people are fighting to market themselves, a selfie with 400 likes is infinitely more valuable than a similar picture with only 12. But how does one truly place a monetary value on a piece of creative expression and what dictates its worth?
As these questions swirl around in my head the answer suddenly becomes clear. The role of an artist is to challenge us, to open a dialogue and to offer a different perspective on the world. And while every day we are bombarded with thousands of images, it was a single portrait amongst the clutter, which caught my attention. In the process I have ventured out to meet a stranger, learned about their life, their struggles and gained new insight and knowledge. It forced me to confront the social implications of a culture obsessed with fame and disposable art and to assess my own involvement in it. It is in this realm that the power of great art lies, a single image can alter your perceptions or inspire an idea and how does one place a value on that.
Ben Aitken’s exhibition ‘Holy Grin” will be held at The Gallerysmith Project Space on June 13th-14th (6pm-8pm)
170 Abbotsford Street, North Melbourne, Australia
Written by MARTIN KAWALER
Photography by MATI OBRZUD