Ben Pines’ paintings of backyards and little houses look quiet and simple. But they are not born of quiet simplicity.
"For me," the Philadelphia native notes, "when I’m screaming at the top of my lungs, it looks like it’s quiet to everyone else. That’s sort of the way it always seems to me."
When I’m screaming at the top of my lungs, it looks like it’s quiet to everyone else.
Take Pines' first attempts at painting the landscape, back in the 90s. "I was trying to get at the feeling of Hudson River School landscapes," he explains. The mid-nineteenth-century paintings of such natural wonders as Niagara Falls and the California Redwoods by the likes of Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt were in their day literally unveiled to the public for an admission fee. Pines' understated, subtle works would be lost in the midst of such spectacle. So where was the connection?
"I’m most moved by those things that are sometimes called bombastic," Pines concedes. "But I’m not interested in doing anything other than what I’m interested in doing. I’m processing that information in my own way."
Pines’ process has definitely been his own. He emerged from his undergraduate career in 1991 with two bachelor's degreesa BA from Tufts, where he studied comparative religion, art history, and philosophy; and a BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in painting, electronic music, and digital art.
He stayed in Boston after college, but wasn't painting much. "Really, discovering how good bicycles had become in the early nineties was sort of the main event," he recalls, "so that I could bike around and enjoy the scenery up there."
Pines has always loved being outdoors. But not always painting it. The few paintings he was making at the time were conceptually driven. "My view of art at the time was that some kind of net message of a work of art was the key thing," he explains. "If you want to make a powerful work of art, figure out the simplest, strongest way to say that important thing."
I needed to go deeperor I don't know that ‘deeper’ is actually the right wordmaybe a better concept might be 'physically integrated'.
His biggest influence at the time was the pop artist Ed Ruscha, whose text paintings co-opt the strategies of advertising. "I was working at an art store that dealt with the architectural and graphic design community so I was familiar with all the different fonts and type faces. And so I would feel a word was interesting, choose a type face and then paint it kind of clumsily in gouache on a piece of watercolor paper."
Ultimately, however, the message-driven art he’d been making became suspect. "I feel like that work is a little bit mocking of the physical in a way,' he reflects. "I needed to go deeperor I don't know that ‘deeper’ is actually the right wordmaybe a better concept might be 'physically integrated'."
The direction he needed to go in became clearer after seeing a landmark show of paintings by the Italian Renaissance master Titian at the National Gallery in Washington. "It had everything I thought was going for," Pines concedes, "and a whole lot more."
Pines pursued his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy, where he earned a Certificate in Painting; and eventually Indiana University, where, in the course of earning his MFA, he began to make large multi-figure compositions. "That got to be a nightmare," he admits. "There was one in particular that started with two figures, and moved to five, then moved to seven, then moved back down to two different figures from the ones that it started with. And then ended up getting thrown in the trash."
I think an artist has to be true to their core and nurturing of their soul or basic feelings, but in a healthy dialogue with the world.
So he pared down, limiting himself to a series of portrait heads and these simple landscapes, made in a few hours, or a couple of days, in his immediate surroundings. "I would just go north under the bridge, under the tracks on Fess Street and there were these fields. It definitely had everything I need."
He didn't need Niagara Falls, or any other spectacular landmark. As Pines explains it, painting unremarkable scenery in a radically simplified way is really not as much about representing the world out there, as it is discovering himself:
I’m not trying to capture an external anything, in an unadulterated way. I’m working to capture a relationship of my own feelings to something external. I think an artist has to be true to their core and nurturing of their soul or basic feelings, but in a healthy dialogue with the world.