Kinstler Conversation with Benjamin Styer
By Maddie Klett
The following is a conversation with Western Massachusetts based painter Benjamin Styer. This interview took place in May 2023 and has been edited for length and clarity.
Maddie Klett: I’m starting with two questions and you can decide which you want to answer: how did you begin painting and how did you begin this painting, Mondegreen Codex (2021)?
Benjamin Styer: Sure. I have a pretty long relationship with painting. As a child I was drawn to the art in children’s books. Monet was a person I looked up to at age five. I soon aspired to paint hyper-real and couldn’t. In high school I had a burst of painting for three years after discovering Basquiat. I’d also been making music for some time, and through the years switched between songwriting and painting. When I was 27, I decided to completely devote my time to painting after starting a particular sketchbook. All my life I've been looking at art history, so I’d been having a long conversation with it in my head the whole time.
MK: You were forming this relationship with painting while you were doing this other creative pursuit, which was being a musician?
BS: Yes, composition and songwriting. In Mondegreen Codex, and all of my art, there's the presence of music. It's something tangled up in my head always. I feel like I want to be making music. That's part of my process in painting– wishing there was an alchemy involved where it could be music instead. I don't know if I technically have synesthesia, but I do have visual impulses to music that I follow in my painting process. The two are wrapped up in a mystery I like to pretend is solvable in my art.
MK: As someone who is meshing these two different languages of creative production—music and visual art—it makes sense that they become two-sides of the same thing. Do you listen to music when you paint?
BS: A lot of time. But for certain paintings, or certain stretches of paintings, it will be completely silent. Recently I've been really into water sounds. Rain sounds are seriously good for painting for some reason.
MK: It puts you in the zone. How long does a painting like this take?
BS: The process of making bigger paintings is pretty new to me. Before this one, they were smaller and they would usually take me a few days, weeks or at most a month. Mondegreen Codex was a long-winded four month process. It was really six months. There were two months in the middle where I had to take a break.
MK: That's a long time. How did you begin?
BS: It was a painting in the back of my head for a while. A landscape filled with personal characters in mixed story scenes, and a table of elements at top and bottom. I had this outline in mind building itself. There's always been a collage ethic in my work, where subjects of different contexts meet to socialize in the same picture. In Mondegreen Codex the idea was to make a choose-your-adventure painting combining the motifs, characters, artifacts and architecture I’d been accumulating in my practice over the years.
I've always been obsessed with [Hieronymus] Bosch and his painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, which bears some resemblance to this one. That painting is so internalized for me. Beyond its religious subject matter, it’s a painting about human emotion, fear and aspiration. It really tries to say something beyond its subject matter. There's also something in its color and time of day that resonated with me and my world when I first saw it in high school. That was really the beginning—wanting for a long time to paint a picture of that same time of day, but according to my rules.
MK: I'm actually looking at The Garden of Earthly Delights now and comparing the two. Obviously there's different subject matter but also yours isn't symmetrical like Bosch’s. You have this winding rainbow path between buildings. What is the significance of the ombre, architectural elements?
BS : They're supposed to be living, moving structures. They represent visuals in my head that occur in little pinches as I listen to certain music—spinning carousels with layers of shifting lights that are synchronized to the music’s moving parts. They’re shorthand for an idea I can’t truly depict or explain—the structures themselves being ghosts, in the sense that music is a sort of cyclical ghost. The characters inhabit them, explore or disappear into them, becoming part of that ghost-fabric.
MK: They point to something that's happening in your mind, but that isn’t really representable.
BS: That's what art is trying to figure out; how to walk around the borders of the thing you can't really get at. Things you can only catch echoes of, leaving you to articulate the rest yourself. The name also points to this. Mondegreen, do you know what that is?
BS: It's a made up word by an English poet, Sylvia Wright. It’s when you misinterpret a song lyric or poetic phrase. Often the listener’s error takes on a different, personal world of meaning. That's something that happens to me all the time. I receive something wrong, in my own way because of how I think. Many realizations in life come disguised in the form of something else, led by this. That’s what the painting's about in one way. It’s a collection of personalized meanings I still struggle to understand, gathered from what I’ve heard and seen, and me using scenario as a device to ask questions about them. Does that makes sense?
MK: Of course. This painting, which has such an important place in visual culture, is being filtered through you. Right? Just like it is filtered through all of us. Song lyrics are such a clear example of how everyone encounters the world differently, because people mess up song lyrics in so many ways.
BS: Yeah. And with the Bosch painting, there's something I access in it, but I don't access all of it. There’s a strain of it that really matters to me, a way in my thinking that it serves, regardless of its original function. But aspects of it are also outdated and irrelevant to me.
MK: Well it also served a purpose, right? Because it has religious allusions, at that time religious art was like TV for people.
BS: He was so clever, saying one thing yet saying so many more inside it. I tend to see the work as a psychological display rather than a Bible warning. Freedom of the imagination is a motive I see running in reverse to the painting’s religious advertising. That’s something he demonstrated as a thinker. In the sum of his subplots is a many-faced, morphing answer to love and death that I wouldn’t try to pin down as a three step process. I think Bosch left things unpinned too. He had a devotion to open-endedness to which I aspire.
MK: Right. Relating the title or overarching theme to the Bible gave him this liberty to just go crazy.
What are your constraints, self-imposed or otherwise? Because they're actually really important for creative practice. For artists to set rules, so they can make decisions on how to move forward.
BS: That's a really interesting question. Prior to Covid, the constraints were having to work a full-time job. Painting for four hours a night instead of painting all day. Money is constantly a constraint, but around Covid I figured out at least for the time being how to work self-employed, so for the first time in life, time is less of a constraint.
The challenges, recently, are more conceptual—about darkness in subject matter. I make a choice to try to make joyful work, on the brighter side, as a response to the negative. The point of some joy, silliness and wonder in art is to reconcile with darkness, or to escape it. I think that's what it provides for a lot of people.
MK: There's a lot of value in beauty. Especially beauty in art that is not readily understandable or determinable.
BS: And the beauty of horrifying things, the stateliness of evil, dread and pain which makes it all the more frightening. I think more and more of how I want to deal with the fact of darkness. In my painting, there's what I would consider horror, but I turn it into a cartoon so it doesn't look like the kind of horror you see in the Bosch painting, or the deeper kind of horror that exists in us. Why do I do this? I think it’s a response to fear.
MK: Could you talk about the cartoons in your painting? They’re quite large compared to the size of the trees, but maybe that is a play in perspective?
BS: Well it's because I’ve had this long ridiculous idea of my characters floating up in the sky like blimps. They have mysterious influence on the smaller ground scenes happening beneath. I grew up with cartoons. I was born in 1990, so Nickelodeon and all that stuff was a way of seeing and dealing with life. I developed a cartoon-me that runs parallel to my life.
MK: Speaking of joy and play, what do you think about Mondegreen Codex becoming a puzzle?
BS: I am absolutely thrilled, I have always loved puzzles. I obsessed over my Carmen Sandiego and Where’s Waldo puzzles as a kid. There’s so much to learn as you put a puzzle together. You see every nook and cranny and find something deeper about the artist’s intent. I hope people find pleasure in piecing it together.
MK: It's true. Your work is so intricate and complex and there's so many things to discover.
What is puzzling you today?
BS: My life and the world. What else do you say? Art-wise, I'm puzzled about how I'm going to approach making portraits because that is my next project.
MK: Portraits. Wow. Exciting.
BS: I was thinking today, who is gonna be my first new subject? It’s difficult, anytime you switch from what you know to what you know through a different lens. There's a lot to think about with portraits but then maybe not. At the end of the day, painting is all a bunch of feelings.