The Context of color and figure
written by Marina may
History needs context. To be contextualized then recontextualized, remembered and re-figured. In St. Louis, we are shuttling from past to present, and back again, consistently navigating that channel and its realities. We remember and we forget all at once. Enter, the work of painter Ben Pierce.
His latest show Ota Benga, at Hoffman LaChance gallery, reinvigorates the story of a young Congolese boy brought to the 1904 World’s Fair. This thirteen year old was used as a demonstration of the “primitive” nature of Africans, and by extension Black Americans. Similar to Ota, shut in a cage and displayed as an oddity, this story has been largely hidden from history class and almost entirely removed from the consciousness of the city.
In a beautiful and haunting evaluation of what it means to be “other,” Pierce utilizes anthropomorphized figures placed in ethereal, bold backgrounds to inject magic into marginalized identities.
“I think sometimes people in disadvantaged or immigrant communities are told they can never be this. [The masks] are a way for somebody who is constantly told they are less than something else, to regain a power and magic.” Pierce says of utilizing animal masks in his work. “I like juxtaposing people back into something that’s a little more magical or wonderful. So it’s a way for them to say, I don’t need to be that, I can be this.”
As a native of St. Louis, graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, and a member of a long lineage of both artists and social workers, Pierce is intrinsically tied to the community. He draws inspiration from his family and consistently integrates their spirit, namely his grandmother’s into his works.
“My grandmother was very inspirational to me. She always gave me a piece of paper and pencil, and said ‘Here do your thing.’”
When cleaning out her house, he began collecting paper ephemera; from love letters written from his grandfather, to highly colorful church fliers. He incorporates these bits of paper, which he fervently collects from both family and flea markets, into his work. The process of collage further anchors the works in the human realm and enhances the mysticism of the superimposed figures. He suggests that these are indeed humans moving throughout the world, but they have manifested their own reality and space within it.
The fliers culled from his grandmother’s house are actually the basis of his palette, which is perhaps one of the most striking elements of his work. The rich contrasting hues immediately attract the viewer.
Though Pierce is “not particularly religious,” many of the gestures, with particular emphasis on hands, coupled with the intensity of the color, lend an air of reverence to the works and elevate them to realm of the supernatural. Though the many of the figure’s faces are covered with masks of birds, butterflies, and dogs, the performative, spiritual-esque positioning of the hands reveal the personality and innate power of the human beneath.
His latest work is a reclamation of history. Done through a masterful understanding of the human form, color, and nature, his paintings bridge the divide of understanding. The thematic program of recognizing and celebrating identity in history is something relatively new to his practice as a whole.
“I did a piece for Anchors [an exhibition at Concrete Ocean Gallery organized by fellow artist Daniel Burnett], that sparked this new direction.” Pierce said. “Pretty close to that time, I’d seen a dead coyote on Jefferson, right in the middle of city. That struck me in a way I wasn’t expecting it to. I felt close to that. He [the coyote] didn’t ask to be put in that position, he just wanted to run around and get some food an go home. I realized that people of color are treated in the same way that invasive specious are treated.”
For Pierce, the idea of contributing to the current narrative of identity has been something that has taken time to actualize within his practice. He began working as a street artist, though he now hesitates to align himself with the community because “graffiti writers put themselves at risk every time they go out. To align yourself with that, when you are not doing that on a regular basic, is not right. I came out of that community and respect it way too much to claim it now that I'm no longer writing.” He created stickers with figures on them, “because they were free, quick, discrete and removable,” and placed them on abandoned buildings around the area. Overtime, and through the recent conversations or lack thereof regarding race in the “powder-keg” that is St. Louis, Pierce became invested in softening the “cut and dry” way in which history and identity are viewed through the access point of art.
“These last couple of shows that I’ve done have been really inspiring to myself. I sort of shied away from [the conversation] because I was scared of doing it poorly, or doing it wrong, or offending somebody. I don't ever want to be a shock artist. I never wanted to be doing something just to say something… if you don’t have anything to say then don’t say anything.
But it seemed almost irresponsible not to be speaking about these things because they’re so prevalent,” he says.
“I think I’m going to continue in this vein for a while and hopefully things get better, but if they don’t then i’m just gonna keep doing it. If they do then I’ll just go back to drawing stickers.”
Make sure you come out to Hoffman LaChance Gallery for your last change to see Ota Benga, which will close this weekend on March 31st.