Ben Aikin: Paintings
My father was an artist. He sold a few paintings here and there over the years, but he was never able to break through as a successful painter. To support his family, he did anything and everything in the world of art and illustration, from apartment store decorative design to retouching newspaper photos with an airbrush, from humble sign painting to rendering the interiors of hydrogen bombs for the defense department at Sandia Laboratory.
He died in 1992, but he hadn’t been able to paint after the early ’80s; his eyesight deteriorated due to macular degeneration. For years, my mother had dozens of paintings stored in the garage. Unfortunately, some of them got damaged while stored (please don’t ask for details). Today, however, I still have about 18 of his very best paintings, and also a handful of smaller works.
For better or worse, he tended to work large. The first painting shown below, “Return of the King,” is fully six feet tall. I currently have about ten canvases hanging in my home, and I’m taking good care of the others. But the sad fact is that no one but me is going to see them, as long as they’re here at home.
I’d love to arrange a local exhibition, but very few public spaces have the high ceilings and expanses of wall needed to show the paintings as they were meant to be seen. The places that have space also have policies. Our local library in Livermore, for instance, has a beautiful front hallway. It would be ideal for an exhibition! But for reasons that make perfect sense, the library doesn’t allow shows by individual artists. If they did that even once, they would be besieged by other artists demanding equal consideration.
For the time being, then, this page is the only place where you’re going to have an opportunity to encounter his paintings.
Ben was enormously interested in color, and I’m sure he’d be disappointed in how these works look after passing through the image capture of a $100 Kodak camera and then through the odd, non-linear processing supplied by your Internet browser software and computer operating system. Also, the camera introduces a little spherical aberration, which I’ve attempted to correct using the free Gimp image-processing software. And of course it’s highly unlikely that your computer screen is six feet high. (Size matters.) Even so, I think these images reveal something important about his work. I hope you enjoy viewing them!
This style has been called “synthetic cubism.” The debt to cubism is obvious, but there’s no overt subject matter. The figures in “Return of the King” may not be human. They may not be figures at all, though the presence of ovoids in the upper area does suggest that they have heads.
The next piece, “The Artisan,” is 4’7″ tall. It’s unframed.
Both of the two works above date from the late ’60s or early ’70s. Here’s an earlier work from the 1950s. It’s 3’6″ wide and about 2′ high. The subtle colors in this painting didn’t photograph too well. Even so, this image may give you an idea what his work was about: the interplay of intersecting shapes. He worked hard to create a kind of visual ambiguity in which you could clearly see that the image was three-dimensional, but you could never be certain whether one shape was in front of or behind another shape. The optical energy of the paintings comes both from the color combinations and from the fact that the shapes never settle into a definite spatial relationship.
Now it’s time for some new uploads (as of September 2012).
Somebody commented that the figures in the image above look vaguely Aztec. My father may or may not have had anything that specific in mind; this piece could have been painted at about the same time he carved a kachina doll, so Native American art was definitely on his radar.
I call the painting above “Nocturne.” It’s not as bright as the image here would suggest — I removed some of the flash highlight from the center area, but that left it a little washed out.
The natural light from the window was coming from the right in the next image, as you can probably tell from the shadow cast by the frame. But this accentuated only slightly the natural contrast between the right side and the left, so I made no attempt to correct it.
The next item I call “Odalisque.” I don’t remember if that’s the official name. I’d have to take it down from the wall to look at what’s written on the back, and it’s too big for me to do that — it’s six feet wide. My father didn’t always give his paintings names at all, and on occasion he asked me to come up with a name, so I don’t feel bad about renaming a painting after the fact.
During the period when he was doing grids of small squares (and by the way, this was back in the ’70s, well before computers had color screens with pixels!), Ben did a series called The Four Seasons, after Vivaldi. Unfortunately, “Summer” was vandalized in a break-in many years ago at the Unitarian Church, but I still have the other three. Below is “Autumn.” The blues don’t pop out quite as much as the photo would suggest.
To conclude the series of new uploads, here’s a large piece , about 5’8″ wide not including the frame. I have no idea what the title might be, or what title to give it, but it’s unusually bold, because of the uncharacteristically small set of shapes and the large number of shaded areas (color transitions). The shaded area in the upper center has deteriorated a bit from the smooth color gradation I’m sure he saw when he painted it, but in truth the colors blend better than this photo indicates. The darker transition pigment is less reflective, so it didn’t pick up the flash.
This next figure is smaller — about 19″ x 12″. It was painted directly on mat board, probably in the late ’50s or early ’60s.
Here’s another painting from the ’70s, “Hooded Figure.” (That’s my title. Actually, it says “Dancers” on the back, but they don’t look much like dancers, do they?) This is 4 feet wide by 3 feet high. The orange, in particular, is not as vivid in real life as the digital reproduction makes it seem.
Here’s one of the few paintings he did that has a wide frame. It’s also one of the few that suggests motion. The canvas area of “Five Blue Circles” is about 19″ wide by 29″ high. The digital reproduction doesn’t do justice to the delicate shading of the browns.