Poppies and skulls commingle in fantastical airbrushed paintings

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This week’s picks include an artist who creates playful and graphic airbrushed paintings with darker undertones; women who are depicted pumping breast milk while listing their fears; and an artist whose manipulated clay forms match her own body weight.

Ben Sanders at Ochi Projects

Ben Sanders, “Opium Poppies with Razor Blades,” 2020. Image courtesy of the artist and Ochi Projects.

At Ochi Projects in Mid-City, Ben Sanders’ colorful paintings make a vibrant statement. Flowers splash across the graphic and airbrushed works, petals and stems coiling into complex configurations. Sanders’ graphic style recalls Memphis design (think Peter Shire) or perhaps a beachy tropical shirt from the 1980s — he’s not afraid to playfully arrange colors and patterns to create ecstatic compositions, all while maintaining razor-sharp edges and seamless gradients. While delighting in these details, the symbology of the work begins to softly emerge: razor blades are echoed throughout the show, often intertwined with the delicate stems of a flower; skulls appear often, sometimes guzzling liquids from the flower’s plump stems. The flowers too are specific — while the show is titled “Poppies,” many of the works are titled “Opium Poppy.” In the symmetrical “Opium Poppy with Supplicants,” two cartoonish skulls splay their tongues out to lick a black sap that oozes from a central poppy flower, eyes rolled back in ecstasy — or death. Here, Sanders’ vibrant style clashes up against a deeper undertone, situated somewhere between psychedelia, fantasy, magic, and mortality — these symbols float across the show like omens or signals, pointing to some kind of prophecy. I reached out to the artist to learn more. Read the interview with Sanders below.  

Ben Sanders, “Opium Poppy with Supplicants,” 2020. Acrylic on panel, 84 x 72 inches.
 Image courtesy of the artist and Ochi Projects.

I reached out to Ben Sanders to discuss some of the more sinister themes — skulls, opium, razor blades — that are sprinkled throughout his exhibition, curious about the allusions to America’s opioid epidemic. “The work is about the opioid epidemic here in the U.S., but also more about the poppy as a kind of humble magical object that has been used as a tool for resistance against U.S. empire,” Sanders explained. Ironically, Afghanistan is the world’s leading opium producer, supplying 90% of illicit heroin globally. Sanders explains further: “The irony [is] that the people resisting our collective hegemony make a product that ultimately ends up here and has contributed to the sort of hollowing out of our society from within. Like a poison pill.” These complex and sinister themes tug against the overall playful aesthetic of Sanders’ paintings, creating a robust tension between style and content. “It’s a very anti-American show in that way,” Sanders jokes. “I’m not a huge fan of us.” 

On view: December 5, 2020 – January 30, 2021

Patty Chang at 18th Street Arts Center

Patty Chang, “Milk Debt,” 2020. 5-channel HD video, 53 minutes. Image courtesy of the artist.  

At 18th Street Arts Center, Patty Chang’s video installation “Milk Debt” features breast milk. Though a ubiquitous biological process, the act of pumping breast milk is strangely taboo in American culture — Chang’s unabashed focus on the subject feels liberating in contrast. In her multi-channel film, Chang documents women pumping breast milk in various locations, while they list their personal fears. The fears play on an adjacent screen in large white type on a black background as the women recite them. “I fear that people will stop loving me... I fear that life’s struggles will continue and I won’t be able to enjoy adult life at any point,” one of the women confesses. The vulnerability of the women’s shared innermost fears paired with the intimate act of pumping breast milk allows for a portrayal of motherhood that is complex, tender, and ultimately empowering. While the act of giving birth literally gives one’s body over to another being, “Milk Debt” reclaims female autonomy and multiplicity amidst the act of caring for another life. 

October 19, 2020–January 22, 2021

Brie Ruais at Night Gallery 

Brie Ruais, “Opposing Tides, Shaping Forces,” 2020, installation view in “Spiraling Open and Closed Like an Aperture”
at Night Gallery, 2020. Photograph by Marten Elder, courtesy of the artist and Night Gallery.

Artist Brie Ruais literally wrestles her ceramic forms into shape. In her solo show at Night Gallery downtown, her spiraling and wall-bound sculptures are marred with deep divots and imprints that evidence the human touch. For many of the works, Ruais begins with a mass of clay that is equal to her body weight, and then goes about pushing and massaging the raw clay into forms that (like a snow angel) diagram the reaches of the artist’s limbs. The immense physicality that is required to manipulate raw clay imbues Ruais’ sculptures with an uncanny personification, the size, weight, and thumbprints embedded throughout matching her own.  For, “Opposing Tides, Shaping Forces” (2020), Ruais created the work with another participant — each started by flattening out their body weight in clay on opposite sides of a room, before pushing the clay sheets towards one another across the space as the clay buckled and folded underneath the pressure. The resulting work captures this collective activity in its fired form — like two halves of best friends heart necklaces that nest together. These sculptural works are also paired with aerial photographs, taken with a drone, of Ruais’ clay forms sited within the desert landscape. Photographed from above, the movements of plant and wildlife (deer trails and scattered shrubs) are vital signs of life — the ceramic forms, which also display signs of life and movement, seamlessly become one with their environment. 

November 21, 2020 – January 23, 2021