Ben Frost: Art's Ultimate Punk
Depicted on Ben Frost's canvases are signs and symbols that sprawl and seethe; a total subversion of semiotics, in what can be described as pop art dystopia. Cultural icons are stripped of the context in which they were conceived and which they have been conditioned: Disney characters take on maniacal Machiavellian tones, corporate logos are interspersed with pornography (making obvious the 'sex sells' mantra), supermodel Twiggy has METAL emblazoned on her forehead, all while spray paint drips down like neon billboard blood. Rendered in hyper-colour and recalling comic books and graffiti, the overall result is unsettling to both artistic tradition and notions of contemporary society. Like the visual equivalent of punk music, this aesthetic anarchy comes to represent the grotesque spectacle that is post-modernity. Ingrid Kesa writes.
Frost recalls his first contact with art as a child growing up in south east Queensland, saying, "In year one at school I remember my teacher screwing up the drawing I was working on and throwing it into the rubbish bin." One can't help but instantly conjure up images of not-so-innocent stick figures, but Frost isn't so sure: "I still have no idea what I did wrong, but it must have been offensive."
This was the first of many times that Frost's work would offend. His painting 'White Children Playing: Late 1900's', which portrayed children using drugs, caused outrage to the extent of invoking debate on TV show Sunrise. In 2000, Frost fooled the media and art world with his art prank 'Ben Frost is Dead', in which the artist faked his own death in the form of an exhibition invite disguised as a funeral notice. As well as propelling him to infamy, the success of the prank informed his practice, saying, "my work since then has always commented on the role of the media and advertising and how much of it you should actually believe."
"I like to provoke the viewer, but sometimes it's just as satisfying to poke fun rather than trying to get people arriving at exhibitions with knives drawn and ready," Frost says, referring to his collaborative work 'Where Do You Want to Go Today', the title which mocks Microsoft's 1996 tagline. The painting was met with police threats to be closed down at every venue it showed; one viewer was so offended that they took a knife to the 12 metre long artwork, slashing the canvas.
It is amazing then that this master of provocation, whose apparatus comprises of recycled imagery and non-traditional painterly mediums, has been able to show everywhere from Tokyo and New York, to Belgium and Barcelona. But this does not always equal acceptance into the world of high art. "My work has always had a mixed reaction from critics and curators, and I have generally found I've existed on the outskirts of the 'serious' art world," he says. "This has given me more freedom to go ahead and start new things, rather than taking it for granted that things are supposed to be done in a certain way. It's when you do new things that nobody has seen before that people get interested."
Frost's paintings serve another, more personal function aside from provoking the public. "I think painting has been a kind of 'therapy'," Frost divulges, hinting that creativity is, for him, cathartic. As he revealed in a statement of intent from NYARTS magazine in 2007, the artist has had nightmares since he was a child and suffers from 'the Old Hag syndrome', in which the casualty is bombarded with horrendous nightmares, while they remain completely immobile. "My nightmares have always been in technicolour," he explains, "with spiders crawling through convenience stores and vomiting cartoon characters with blood coming from out of their ears."
Assault of the senses to the point of desensitisation could very well be the metaphor that Frost's paintings put forward for post-modernity. In one of his most recent works ('Spiders in the Chandelier'), an atomic bomb blows up a city as spiders crawl around half-naked cartoon women who whip each other sadistically. It's cause enough to wonder, is the world truly doomed? "Humanity is like a cancer that is slowly destroying its host. Apocalypse is our birthright - the natural progression of a doomed society. It's like a grand comedic tragedy," Frost says with dry cynicism. "I think the only thing you can do is to try to see the lighter side of the end of the world."
For Frost, this more light-hearted take to universal demise is through that act of creating art. It is not uncommon to hear punk music blaring from his speakers as he paints in his studio, and these symbols associated with the genre - the Misfits' skull, The Cramps' logo, the anarchy icon - reoccur in his work. "There's nothing better than something with a bit of aggression playing in the background when you're trying to figure out whether to throw a bucket of red paint across the room or not."
Frost is currently working on a show at Boutwell Draper Gallery in Redfern, which will be his first solo show in Sydney in 3 years.