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Ben Snead Text


Why animals and specifically why animals at the lower end of the spectrum?
People often ask me that or something like, "Why do you paint fish?" I grew up in a place where the outdoors was very accessible, and spent a lot of time fishing. I started out painting trout, and eventually the subject grew to a wider range of species - birds, insects, frogs - which were attainable through field guides. I am attracted to them because of the various ways in which they are patterned. There are spots, ovals, stripes, blurry shapes, squiggly lines, fades, geometric shapes, etc. Some are patterned for mating purposes, some to distract and elude, others for camouflage, and then there are those brightly colored poisonous frogs whose decoration acts as a warning system. This is a kind of language; it is a human condition to try to decode it. The animals at the lower end of the spectrum especially interest me as they are so far removed from human that they seem to possess alien qualities, yet exist all around us. They are simultaneously accessible and elusive.

Sometimes I glance at your paintings and chuckle, "Oh, the frogs are holding hands!" "The fish are square dancing!" "The birds are kissing!" Do you think of the configurations as dances or workout routines? How do you develop them?
Sometimes they do look like they are kissing or square dancing. Originally I got to the configurations through looking at my previous, simpler paintings through a kaleidoscope, and the patterns would magically appear before my eyes. I don't rely on that device any longer, because after numerous viewing and drawings, I have trained myself to think in terms of symmetry and pattern. Sometimes a configuration for one painting gets augmented into a variation for a configuration for a new painting, and so on, like a chain reaction. Sometimes I let the specimens talk to me. They say, "This is my shape and color; I want to move like this, and be next to this.". I think about dance routines and choreography in relation to my desire to explore different ways of movement. Wanting the specimens to behave in an unnatural and human way, I feel draws attention to them. Imagine a person jumping around like a frog. That would be pretty noticeable. It seems to be a human condition to insert a tangible subject onto a system. I also very much like the way a dance routine objectifies a piece of music.

Most all your paintings are symmetrical. What's your interest in symmetry? Why not asymmetrical?
In graduate school I had a great teacher, Michael Young, who showed me a new way to deal with my field guides and subject matter. He would stress the natural and unnatural, development of a personal classification system, the decontextualization of an object, the autonomous object. For a long time I had only this foggy notion of what he was saying. It wasn't until a few years later, when I picked up a kaleidoscope and looked at an asymmetrical, loose configuration of fish in one of my paintings and it was transformed into a perfect symmetrical system, that these concepts became more clear. There is something about the repetition of a single specimen that makes it more convincing. Somewhere between nature and symmetry there lies a friction, and that something I find interesting.

Why keep the species fairly separate from each other?
At this point it is in order to compare how they are different. In terms of their anatomical structures, frogs, beetles and birds have appendages which can be connected and moved around, while fish and butterflies are comparatively, fairly static forms. When connecting fish in a weave, the angle has to be a lot wider than when connecting frogs, therefore the types of patterns in fish paintings differ from those in frog paintings. I've been thinking about ways to combine species within the same pattern and, as well to have more variation in their sizes, however that hasn't yet been resolved.

Any plans for changes in the distinct figure ground relationship you currently work with?
Sometimes it seems like the negative spaces in the paintings need to be more obviously activated, so that there is a dialogue between the specimens and the spaces they create. I've just completed some small high-contrast b/w studies about the shapes between patterns of fish and butterflies, so that too is under consideration.

What is your interest in decoration and the decorative? It used to be anathema to young artists, however these days that seems not the case.
There are so many kinds of decoration. I like the decorative in art when it goes beyond being formally only about the decorative. Man made decoration generally seems to be about some sort of cultural code. Much of Native American decoration is mathematical and based on a grid system while Islamic decoration finds its basis in the organic. Sometimes I insert naturally decorated specimens into a mathematical order, while in other paintings they are inserted into more of an organic pattern. Pattern for me works as a system. It is the inherent nature of the anatomical structure and patterning of the specimens, when inserted into these systems, that make my painting decorative. It is our humanization of nature. Some of my paintings that look like people (more Native American grid related) are based on the idea that we always want to see the human in things, because this is what we know best. If the shape is between human and furniture, we almost always see the human.

Are your representations true to life or do you augment the shapes and color?
Humans are manipulators. If I am painting a frog from a photograph, it will probably not end up looking exactly like the original specimen in the field guide. Who knows when this picture was taken? Has it faded? Was the photographer using a color filter? In the film developing process did the color change? How big was this frog in real life compared to how big it is on this page? In this particular field guide, a stream frog has an orange back, while in another field guide the same kind of frog has a brown back. In dealing with symmetry, I usually always have the frog in a birds eye view position, which is seldom seen in field guides. So I do manipulate things. Yet keeping true anatomy is very important to me. So is color and pattern. If a tropical fish has a blue back, but it turns out that this fish in this painting's color scheme won't work, I have been known to change the color to green. I don't do this very often, and always feel like I am cheating when I do. However, I do think that any good biologist would be able to identify most of the specimens in my paintings.

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