Interview with painter, Benjamin Lowery
Earlier this spring Ben Lowery invited me down to Bloomington to partake in a landscape painting workshop with Brian Rego, a founder of the perceptual painter group. It was a nice reminder of all the compositional complexities that can happen in our experience of the landscape that can also be expressed in clear and simple ways. I was grateful for the opportunity to participate. I was struck by Ben’s intentional effort to cultivate and discuss issues about landscape painting with academic vigor. Inviting him to be part of Summer Landscape was a natural progression of the conversation that started in Rego’s landscape painting workshop.
Furthermore, I was reminded of my own experiences painting the landscape while in Bloomington. Between the classes that Tim Kennedy and Eve Mansdorf teach during the summers and periodic assignments given during undergrad and graduate classes, it’s not unheard of to see painters in the university landscape. Observing and working from the landscape through plein air painting can be both communal and a discipline.
Ben’s practice moves adroitly between technique, history, and the contemporary conversation of landscape painting; it’s fitting to find Ben in the midst of a plein air outing.
Could you talk about your background in observational painting?
I had done a little observational painting in undergrad, and drew from the figure a lot. However I didn’t really start till a few years later while hanging out with a friend on a porch one evening where we had some painting supplies out. We just started painting junk strewn across a table and something about it stuck with me. I still have an image of that painting. From that point I started spending a lot of time working from observation. It is fascinating to me how complicated and bizarre the process of translating something from your direct visual experience onto a picture plane is. There’s a Patrick Swift quote I like, ‘How difficult not to see anything but the visible,’ which I think describes a part of the struggle. After a few years of working from observation on my own I attended some summer programs, the Mount Gretna School of Art and JSS in Civita, which provided much needed outside input. This eventually led me to study here at IU Bloomington. I also saw that there were many painters alive today that worked from observation as a serious concern, and that it had many historical ties as well. I think observation works hand in hand with other concerns in painting and working from other sources, memory or invention. Ultimately there is much more to making a painting and the language of painting than direct observation, but I still find it a big part of my work.
What are you focusing on while in the IU MFA program?
A lot of the work is still from observation, but some of the paintings I want to make require a mix of sources which is new to me. I have some paintings going that are narratives based loosely on my experiences. Most of these are incorporating figures into landscapes, like the piece in this show.
What is important to note about the large painting?
I was interested in painting an intense summer light on these interesting limestone rock formations in quarries around Bloomington. I also wanted to incorporate figures into this. A lot of it is done from photo references, so I was navigating how to do that as well even though it is not ideal. A lot of what I find myself thinking about while working on the painting are formal tensions and visual pressures involved in relating the figures in a space.
What other artists/works do you think about while painting the landscape?
I think a lot of influences trickle in, but I always go back to Corot, Morandi’s landscapes, Balthus’ landscapes and Constable when I’m painting the landscape. These are both for figures and how they structure the landscape. There’s this Corot painting at the Met called ‘The Curious Little Girl’ that is so strange, and I was looking at that a lot while painting for this piece. This particular painting has been an enormous learning process for me, so I’m not sure how those translate into it at this point, but they are what I look at when I’m taking a break.