An Interview with Ben Swift

by Ken HarmanPosted on

Even with with gigposter design, screen printing, graffiti, pop art, a “no coast anti-fashion” sticker campaign, a punk band, and the occasional “legit” design gig to keep him busy, Lincoln, Nebraska-based Ben Swift has somehow found the time to switch it up yet again. Ben’s latest work debuts tonight Friday, June 4, and he’s found fine-art inspiration in his DIY tendencies. Switching from ink to paint and increasing exponentially in size, the new works are massive panels five to seven feet wide, each a giant homage to the minor miracle that sometimes surfaces when a byproduct of the screenprint process – the test print – suddenly, magically takes on a unique life of its own. Imagine a dozen or so posters printed harmoniously one on top of another…then pick out one really cool section…now blow it up a few thousand times so it fills your field of vision with snippets of images and text and huge fields of color and you start to get an idea of where Ben’s coming from. HF contributor Chris McCreary wrangled him into an email interview and forced a few preview pics out of him exclusively for Hi-Fructose readers.

So what are we looking at in these new pieces – are these large-scale recreations of some of your own test prints?

I don’t really make test prints, so no they are not literal recreations, but they do have a layered, printed feel to them. More or less, I wanted to create some large pieces using certain shapes that I’ve been working with for about the past year and a half. These were mostly watercolor pieces that I was playing with, shape and color and some logos. I started toying with the idea of enlarging the compositions to a monumental scale, and making them more “pop art” than washy watercolor.

Test prints are frequently viewed as “throwaway” pieces: remnants of the process. What makes you want to blow them up and analyze them so intensely?

There is something really engaging about the unintended relationships of color, shape and text that often happen in test prints, and I think that’s why people are drawn to them. For these paintings I worked on the computer first, creating deliberate compositions, and then intentionally messing them up for the final paintings, shifting the composition of elements. I wanted to give the sense that these paintings are each almost accidental, but possibly related – glimpses of a bigger image.

Most readers will know you best from your economically designed gigposters and the “Eyeskull” icon you use: how and when did you get the idea to go so huge? And to go so conceptual?

This winter was especially hard here in Nebraska, and I was going a bit stir crazy. I spent several months working on very small illustrations on scrap pieces of cardboard. I got the feeling that I was making “trash” art. When I was invited to do this upcoming show I had to take a look at what I had been creating and think about what I wanted to do: either continue with that direction or try something else. Ultimately I took a new line. I really wanted to challenge myself, both in scale and content.

There’s something immediately “pop art” about these pieces. You have any problem with that label?

I immediately recognize them as pop. They are big, graphic, colorful paintings. Maybe I’m not thinking about them the same way as some pop artists might, as far as what their “narrative” might be, but I am working on the next batch of compositions that may or may not have more to say. I want to create large, abstract-yet-clean compositions that make me feel good.

There’s a process animation on your blog that reveals you’re working deliberately one color at a time, and not necessarily going back to that color – a very screen-print-like technique. Is that a fair assessment? Is that a result of your DIY/printing roots?

Yes, it’s kind of like printing, more or less. I approach and paint each color as the individual shapes that make up the painting. I have tweaked the process a bit since that piece I did the animation for. I block in each color, making certain decisions as I go, then I paint over each section to make each color more uniform and to touch up any drips and splotches. Then I paint in the white, and finally the black halftone. Afterwards, I stare at it until I decide anything else needs to be done – typically more touch up. I do want each painting to have both a painterly and a printed kind of look and feel, and yes, that is directly related to my love of the screen-printing process. If only I could print so big!

This show is opening this weekend in Lincoln. Is it solely devoted to this new direction of yours? Will there be any of your art prints, custom toys, gigposters, or anything like that?

Yes, this is a solo show at Spativm Gallery inside the Parrish Studios. The focus of the show will be these latest paintings. I hope that people get a peek in the door from the hallway and are drawn into the space. The only thing I wish is that the room was bigger. I am also planning to have a table set up of other things I have in my backlog: prints and watercolors with a sign saying, “Anything in this box – $5.”

Spativm Gallery is a small gallery that is run by Angel Settel, herself a fine artist and historian. Parrish Studios is a collective of about 20 small galleries, artsy shops, and design businesses; together they participate in a monthly “First Friday Art Walk” which brings out people of all ages to check out local and national art happening here. It’s pretty great. Some of the other cool things in Parrish Studios include Tugboat Gallery, Project Room, Robot Luv, and Aorta Design.

I am really lucky to have such a great spouse who is helpful and supportive in allowing me to follow my dreams. I have high hopes that my art, business, and band can continue to be successful, and that I don’t have to get a real job again!

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