Ben Jackel: Beauty, Death and the Heart of Darkness…
By Gary Brewer
Art is a form of magic. It is the ability we have to create language and to give new meaning to things. Ben Jackel takes objects we know and imbues them with a symbolic aura. They are simultaneously themselves and carriers of metaphoric narratives; they are objects of beauty and fear. Fire hydrants, cannons, armor, drones, weapons, objects that kill and “empowering objects that help us in the battle for survival”. His sculptures have an immediate impact, their formal beauty and craft elevating and altering the status of the object – they function as pure sculpture with internal relationships in tension and balance, a modernist fusion of form and content. But there is a beguiling psychological dissonance; a drone is a weapon of war at work as I write these words, armor is a shield to protect the body in mortal combat, a fire hydrant is a tool ever ready to help quell the flames of an inferno, a tool to save lives and property.
I spoke with Ben at length to find out what motives lay behind this work, what compels his instinct towards this ‘darkness’.
Though Ben is a vegetarian and an animal rights activist, he feels that he is a realist as well; he knows that violence, whether from humans or from nature is a profound part of the human condition. These sculptures possess a primal psychological aspect; they are destroyers of life and protectors of life. Their design is purpose driven, their functionality naked and direct. It is upon this platform that the work speaks, that Ben conveys through a mirror darkly something that is disturbing and beautiful at the same time.
As an undergraduate Ben had a teacher, Dr. George Rivera who created art that is social-political activist in nature. He introduced Ben to ideas and artists such as Felix Gonzales Torres, ideas that greatly influenced Ben’s thinking about sculpture and about how art could act in the world, that art could function as a catalyst to effect and reflect social change. A few years later the events of 9/11 shook the world. This world without a major war/conflict that Ben had grown up in was transformed; we became a country at war.
In Ben’s youth he had a fascination with war and had deeply studied the history of WWII. At the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Ben took a road trip to visit the Civil War Monuments in the South, reading about and researching that history. When he returned he started graduate school uncertain of what to do. He had an idea to build a Civil War cannon. He felt that we were a country at war and this was a direct representation of a weapon of war. He made a scale model in ceramic, wood and metal, which satisfied a need to say something about the political reality we live in. The piece had a compelling sculptural and metaphoric resonance for Ben, he felt a clear vision arise in his mind of what his work could be about, that these objects, these weapons and tools of survival could function as a vector of complex human emotions of protection, destruction, valor, fear; all existential aspects of survival.
He is drawn to what he termed “weird morphology”, an object that is simultaneously beautiful and strange. He is also drawn to objects that contain “darkness” that they are wedded to basic primal needs for survival. He mentioned that friends have sent him images of many compelling objects; complex gas pipes, mechanical instruments etc but that if the object was not in some way connected to our survival if it did not contain the “darkness” that it did not interest him.
We live with a hope that this breath will not be our last, that the artifice of civilization has put an armor around our world and that we live protected from the beasts of the wild, that we will be protected from fires, floods and storms, and that war will not visit our doorstep.
In Bens work there is a strange permission to accept the tools of war and survival into our consciousness. The formalization subdues the brutal facts of their purpose and design; these masculine objects of aggression are transformed through the beauty of craft and of human touch into objects of contemplation. It is a visit from death, perceived as a form of beauty that stands like a memorial – a reminder to cherish this life. The dark clay with its satin-beeswax finish, the hardwoods with their graphite burnish, all add a gravitas to these totems of the thin margin between life and death.
Ben said of his work “The objects I choose must have a darkness to them, they must be linked to the battle for human survival. Through this path my work reminds us to cherish this life.” To stand in a room and to see these artifacts of destruction and of survival is powerful, to remove the dynamic action of their intent and to mute their violence has a fascinating force on the imagination and on ones emotions. It is to look at these tools as though they are from some remote civilization and that they take on ritualistic significance that we can just barely attempt to divine.
While visiting his studio Ben showed me two new sculptures he is creating in clay, two boats that contain meta-narratives of death and survival.
One is the lifeboat that Ernest Shackleton navigated through 900 miles of harsh Antarctic seas to find help to rescue his crew that had been stranded on ice for nearly two years. An act of valor and seamanship that is unmatched in history. Though not a man died in this epic ordeal, when they returned to Europe WWI was raging and several of these men who survived the impossible lost their lives in that war.
He is also creating a sculpture of Ernest Hemmingway’s boat “Pilar”, a link to his suicide inflecting it with a shadow of the tragic. I mentioned to Ben his book “A Moveable Feast”, which Ben has also read. He told me that he read it because it had become a bestseller after the tragic events in Paris two years ago, the terror attack by ISIS that left 130 people dead. For many to read this book was an act of solidarity with the people of Paris, a refusal to be disempowered by this act of terror. To immerse oneself in this beautiful book, based on Hemmingway’s journals and diaries from his years in Paris as a young writer, magical years intoxicated with the artistic universe unfolding around him; Gertrude Stein, Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was to embrace the beauty of this place and time and to cherish it in the face of violence and death.
Bens sculptures are beautiful, they have a formal elegance and presence that engages one immediately. They are simultaneously objects designed to take a life or to save a life. In this strange balance something is revealed, a truth about of our humanity is presented both as a fact and as a metaphor, each quality a counter-balance in our world between darkness and light…
Ben Jackel’s show at LA Louver “Reign of Fire” opens July 19th