Mark Benson‘s work examines how people move through the fences of their lives. Weekends, security lines, high rent, horrible markets, libidos, sickness, and health are all delineations in time, space, or self that define our actions and efforts. Most projects use everyday objects or materials to bring to life a variety of contemporary social issues and emotions, from anxiety around productivity, to the fear of failure, to the conflicted joy of being lazy. Benson was born in Denver, CO in 1978. He received his MFA from California College of the Arts in 2011, and has exhibited nationally and internationally. He lives and works in Oakland, CA.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do. I grew up in Denver, CO (a beautiful place to start), then lived in Chicago for a dozen years working mostly on music and art. That city shaped me in so many positive ways. Such an amazing place to call home. Now I live in Berkeley, CA with my wife and one year old son. I enjoy amateur gardening that usually ends up being semi-pro plant murder. I have a great studio in Oakland in which I primarily make sculpture with readymades and casts that examines how any sort of control or confinement shapes our lives. Anything from standing in line to getting vaccinated to feeling frustrated about the weekend’s ephemerality has found its way into my practice. The general idea of control falls into my work quite naturally. Even when I feel like I’m deliberately off in a different direction, I suddenly realize I’m still talking about the same root issues. There is comfort, comedy and sadness in routine, in barriers, in constraints, and I enjoy making work that has melancholy veiled in humor.
How has living in the Bay Area affected your art practice? I feel like I live in three cities being in the Bay Area. The combination of San Francisco, where I am a graphic designer, Oakland, where my studio is, and Berkeley, where I live with my family, all shape my practice in different ways. Most of my work develops from keeping my eyes open while commuting between the three. This area, like many urban hubs, has a lot to offer in human detritus that sits like personal profiles on the street.
San Francisco, as I’m sure you’ve heard, has so much tech growth that’s upending the city’s artists and arts organizations. So many great spaces have closed in the last 36 months. There is a lack of control one experiences when rent doubles in one year. That literally brought my practice to Oakland, which has larger working spaces for less, and such great energy. Once I head home, there is peace and quiet, and I have a small yard to enjoy. The weather here allows for me to work outside in my back yard pretty much year round (which was the case when my son was born and my studio in SF was way too far for me to frequent and not feel like a dead-beat dad). Staying up late making work under the moon listening to KALX with subtle traffic puttering by really did my practice wonders.
What kinds of things are influencing your work right now? Comedy for sure and always. Now it is specifically Broad City, Kurt Braunohler and Louie. Each of them have their own brand of barbed joy. Can’t have a silver lining without a cloud.
Older TV that I should have devoured when it was on: Twin Peaks and the Sopranos at the moment.
Weekend leisure activities: Tennis, gardening, grilling.
My one year old son, who I find hilarious.
What are some recent, upcoming or current projects you are working on? I just closed a solo show at the great Ever Gold Gallery in San Francisco which centered on the weekend from the perspective of Monday morning. Such a sad moment in many people’s lives, Monday morning. For the show, How Was Your Weekend?, I made little cast sculptures hinting at time spent out of town, time boozing, or time eaten away by food poisoning. Larger floor works were devoted to total laziness or being trapped indoors working (for a job) all weekend long. There were small paintings that depicted my own weekends spent in the studio making the rest of the work for the exhibition. This show pushed me to rethink how I make sculpture. Currently, I have been making a ton of cast work that is messy and neat all at once. Some of the colors that are available to mix with plaster and tufstone are amazing, and the solidity of the finished work feels very dense and satisfying. Repeating visual elements made from one cast allow me to create different contexts from a single source. And melding the work with readymades pushes both materials in new directions for me.
What artists are you interested in right now? Always Franz West and Urs Fischer. Ryan Gander just keeps on kicking my butt. Artists that do not make it easy for me to understand their work help me develop a practice that maintains some mystery. Color is incredibly important to me and in my mind, few do it better than Tauba Auerbach. It goes beyond just individual works, as entire exhibitions will be on the same amazing wavelength.
Tell us about your work process and how it develops. It varies. A lot of ideas come from being out and about. But once I get to the studio, things get moving pretty quickly. I get very into playing with objects or materials there, putting them together, walking around them a lot, seeing how well they talk with each other. I also get a lot of ideas from SkyMall, RIP. My work can be on one track with a specific goal in mind and veer to something very different that surprisingly works much better. Very often I just follow the thread that it lays down and am surprised where we end up.
What do you want a viewer to walk away with after seeing your work? I’m not that interested in drawing a line in the sand with my work. I like to leave things open ended so the viewer can take away their own interpretation. If they are amused: perfect. If they are confused: perfect. If they have questions: perfect. If they are upset: perfect.
What were you like in high school? I was an over the top catholic straight edge goth who was probably pretty annoying. I like my high school self though, because if I wasn’t goth then, I might’ve been one as an adult, which just isn’t healthy.
Can you share one of the best or worst reactions you have gotten as a result of your work? The best reaction is when my mom laughs at the work. The worst is when I hear that I should go back to representational painting.
What are you reading right now? The Patti Smith autobiography “Just Kids” and Dave Eggers’ novel “The Circle,” which are two of the most disparate books that can be read at one time. The former is a poetic memoir that takes place in late 60s/early 70s Manhattan, where a bananas amount of famous artists, musicians, and writers lived for next to nothing and carved out their own world that influenced much of pop culture today. The latter is a poignant comedy set in the Bay Area of the not so distant tomorrow where one social media tech company has eclipsed all others and convinces the world of its right and responsibility to surveil everything and basically be Big Brother. Both are pretty great and recommended, although not necessary at the same time.