CURATOR'S ESSAY

Southern Window: Ben Leslie’s Gonzo Décor – Hunting Trophies by André Lawrence

Sitting at a pool, fourth beer in hand, lapping up the Darwin heat, I’m trying to pounce out some of the thoughts I’ve been pouring over. We flew in last night, keen and eager to scout out some exhibition install action for the day. Wet paint and a shifted deadline changed that, so we have some time to make up for, and a little more pressure for me to produce this piece. Ben grins at me across the table, queries teasingly about progress. Cheeky bastard. Interesting that in curating him into Southern Window and organising a boys’ few days in the tropics, I’d come to be thinking about Gonzo. About hunting trophies. And experiencing some fear and loathing in Darwin. Perfect setting.

Gonzo journalism, after Hunter S. Thomson, has been characterised by its (drug-fueled) stream of consciousness writing, something meant to be read as it is written, ‘raw and unedited’[i], experiential reporting where the author becomes the character, embodying truth, irreverence and excess. Ralph Steadman, gonzo cartoonist, friend and collaborator to Thomson, defines the style in his own way: “Nobody I have read knows what GONZO is, was, or ever could be (…).GOnzo makes you feel GOod rather than BAd which is BANZO. GOnzo is GOod. BAnzo is Bad. It is a simple equation.”[ii] What about BENzo? Ben’s a great storyteller. Very GOnzo. Me, not so much. He talks GOod about art, too.

Over another beer, Ben tells me that art “should be open to interpretation, being something that conveys an enigma.” Something you can’t really talk about, but have to speak around. He then worries that people might interpret such a quote as though he’s missed the whole ‘postmodern thing’. But he hasn’t. His objects and assemblages are animated in ways that seek to defy any formal art taxonomy. Much like himself. They project resonance, a depth of enquiry through process based studio work, making, unmaking and remaking, a ‘primitive’ quality in the best sense of the term. Brut, raw, truthful.

In looking up material to contextualise Ben’s work here in Darwin, I came across a news article about a story I remember from the Top End from a few years back. In some ways, this story reminds me of Ben, of his trophies, and embodies a bit of the Gonzo essence that exists up here. It is best related through the opening words of the column: “It’s a curious tale of a hippopotamus, a pig hunter, a millionaire developer, a red-faced government and (…) a game safari”.[iii] In his own words, Ben’s trophies are the “excess by-product of a silly system of self-indulgence” in the studio. So many S’s. A bit like Russel Brand, he reckons. Spirituality, a sense of freedom acquired from the excesses of experience.

Ben describes his practice as ‘”mining the studio”, hunting through the bits and pieces of carved, hacked, coloured, glued conglomerate building blocks he makes, piled in make-shift bins and strewn over the floor and walls. Totemic forms, vessels. Phalluses, yonis. Bits pulled apart and put back together, made whole for time, resurrected. Ben’s studio is like a toy box full to the brim. At every visit, things have shifted around. His playful and inquisitive approach to making creates intuitive assemblages. Building, carving and cutting into forms, recycling them, adding and removing.

His workspace is often a site of lavish material excess. Performative space where constant change and transformation take place, where the artist loses himself, often in a frenzy of noise and activity. He loves his tools, and works them hard. Like the time his belt sander spun a little too close to his balls, sucking in his shirt and shorts and biting the inside of his thigh, leaving a nasty red steak in its wake. Painful experience. Epic, hair raising moment. Close call. Yet, trapped on his clothes and hanging from his body, Ben walked around the shared studios at Fontanelle, showing off the disaster like its own trophy, sharing a laugh. A GOod story in the making.

 

[i] Hirst, Martin. What is Gonzo: the etymology of an Urban Legend. University of Queensland, 2004: 2. Accessed 8th November 2014: http://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:10764/mhirst_gonzo.pdf

[ii] Steadman, Ralph. Gonzo the Art. London: Phoenix Illustrated, 1999: 11.

[iii] News.com.au. Endangered Tipperary animals sold to NT safari hunting park. November 22nd 2009. news.com.au, 2009. Accessed 9th November 2014 http://www.news.com.au/national/endangered-tipperary-animals-sold-to-nt-safari-hunting-park/story-e6frfkxr-1225801741937