‘Hard Feeling Girl’ was the title of one of Heather Benjamin’s first exhibitions, shown at the Brooklyn gallery Stream in 2017. Given the autobiographical subject matter of so much of her work, together with the quotations included on most of her recent works – ‘What's Wrong With Me?’, ‘Traumatised Animal’, ‘Love is Anything You Can Betray’, ‘Why Does She Hurt Herself Like That?’ – the connection between image and feeling is often marked and profound.
The selection shown here is roughly in date order, starting with some of the images from Bad Sex, through her bold, colourful canvases, to her more recent, more subdued and dreamlike paintings.
In October 2022 Keith Estiler from the online magazine Hypeart interviewed Heather Benjamin; you can read the whole extended piece here, we have just chosen some of the fascinating highlights.
When did your artist journey begin?
I was a kid that was always doodling, all my notebooks and homework were so covered in scribbles that I wouldn’t be able to read my notes, so I guess my answer to that is basically as far back as I can remember. But when I started finding any direction was when I got super hardcore into Sailor Moon when I was eight. My grandma lived in Queens and had some neighbours across the street, two girls my age, and they had binders full of Sailor Moon cards. They were so bright and sparkly and inspiring. My dad found out from their parents where to take me in Chinatown to go buy them, and I started building my own Sailor Moon card collection.
Tell us about the evolution of your work.
I guess my career really started with a photocopied zine series called Sad Sex, beginning in 2008. I made ten issues between then and around 2011. I’d been making art for a long time before that, but that was when I started disseminating my work. I was eighteen when I started making those zines, so the work was reflective of my eighteen-year-old mental landscape, all about sex and romance feeling twisted and hopeless. It was all black and white, and was nearly all people fucking and crying. I was going through a lot at the time. And of course I got older, and my mental landscape changed, but I was always diaristic. I became concerned with different things, more nuanced in my perception of sex and romance. I felt less strongly about my work just being a receptacle for me to expel intense bad emotions and thoughts, and more about being a place to work through those things. My work still contains a lot of nudity, but I’m not drawing partnered sex the way I was before. That was of interest to me at the time, but not any more. Now it’s more about creating female figures, kind of avatars for different aspects of my mental landscape. The anguish is definitely still there, but I also want to manifest power and strength and resilience through them, like goddesses who readily show their human sides.
What is it about the exposed human body that interests you as an artist?
I hardly even think about the fact that my figures are naked, and I’m always caught off guard when someone calls attention to it. I’ve symbolised and abstracted my women’s bodies so much that I don’t feel they even read as realistic nudity – those nipples don’t look like nipples, or that vagina like a real vagina. A lot of the point is that my figures are stripped down emotionally rather than physically, going through it in front of the viewer. Showing them naked helps to serve that aim. It seems so basic to me that we are all humans with bodies, and I’m going to paint that. If I’m trying to focus on very deep basic heavy human feelings, clothes can feel distracting.
Naked subjects with exposed genitalia can be offensive to some onlookers. Have you ever received harsh criticism for your works? How do you navigate these situations?
This is something I constantly deal with, in all manner of ways, from my work being censored on the internet and social media, to people saying ‘ I love your work but I just don’t know where I could hang it’. The implication is that since female genitalia are on view the work is unsuitable to be displayed anywhere in your home. That’s a huge bummer to me, and also feels personally offensive, because I have a vagina. There are times when I wonder why I feel so strongly about making work that’s indigestible to a lot of people just because there are vaginas in it, and then other times I know this is exactly why I feel so strongly about making the work. It’s insane to me that it’s 2022 and that anyone would still react this way to my work, particularly within the art world which is supposedly so progressive. The vaginas that I draw and paint are actually so abstracted that I can’t believe anyone would even be offended by them. If you really look at them, they look nothing like a vagina. They are completely disproportionate to reality, often painted a completely unrealistic colour like blue or green, and look more like an alien flower or some underwater plant than anything else. To me that’s even more proof of everyone’s shame – that even seeing it represented so abstractly it’s still shameful. The fact that it’s placed in that position on her body, where the real one would be, is what makes it too much for a lot of people.