Interview: Artist Ben Frost on His Latest Show, Plague Landscapes, at Brooklynite Gallery
"I faked my own death and everybody believed me: even my mum cried when she read about it in the paper."
In 2000, Australian artist Ben Frost faked his own death, sending out newspaper funeral notices that doubled as invites to his solo exhibition. Some, of course, saw this in poor taste--but what do they know about art, anyway? Plague Landscapes is his latest show, with an opening party Saturday at Brooklynite Gallery. The exhibition features his most imaginative work to date: the hyper-bubblegum--style collage pieces for which Frost is known, mashed-up with cutesy cartoon characters (Powerpuff Girls, Porky the Pig, Donald Duck), blood splats, naked women, and bondage gear. Frost's aesthetic of childhood nostalgia modulated by sad and violent imagery gives his paintings a sort of tragic feel that can be attributed to Frost's own perplexed upbringing, his recurring nightmares, and a lifelong fascination with the supernatural. In advance of Saturday's opening, we caught up with Frost to find out what continues to haunt him today.
The Ben Frost Is Dead exhibition provoked a tremendous amount of controversy. Was that your ultimate goal?
I faked my own death and everybody believed me: even my mum cried when she read about it in the paper. It's easy to make people believe things that aren't true. Just turning on the TV is a prime-time example.
You've been quite candid about the nightmares you experienced when you were younger, and have talked about how television was a constant source of inspiration. Are you still working out those issues in your work?
I watch a lot of TV. Well actually I listen to a lot of TV because I get inspired listening to it while I paint. TV is the friend that is always there for you. It understands your problems and gives you advice on how to best handle serious issues like weight loss and car insurance. It introduces you to fun and exciting friends like Ellen DeGeneres, and those misunderstood ladies on Desperate Housewives. I like Judge Judy because she talks "straight from the hip" and she's the kind of woman you would want as an aunt, but maybe more like a distant aunt, so you don't have to listen to her tirade about who really should pay for the damaged fender on your ex-girlfriend's Ford. Sometimes when I go to bed at night I dream that Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil must fight each other with weapons chosen by the studio audience. Then on the new Price Is Right, if the contestant doesn't select the right amount for the car/omelets maker etc, leeches will cover their entire body.
Your work draws heavily from your own childhood. Can you describe a typical day for you at the age of 8?
I distinctly remember watching TV coverage of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster when I was about that age. My mother had dressed me early in the morning in my school uniform and had made me two slices of toast with strawberry jam for breakfast and set me up in front of the second television (which was a little black & white compact model that lived in the sideboard in the hallway). I would always get 2 vitamin C tablets with my toast, which indirectly began my ongoing pharmaceutical drug dependence and strange attraction to late night vitamin commercials.
Watching the space shuttle explode on that little black and white fuzzy screen with strawberry jam dribbling down my chin, I realized that sometimes things don't work out.
Why do you think you have such a strong attraction to animated imagery?
Do you remember that time when you were around five or six when you realized that Santa Clause was really your Dad dressed up in a costume with a pillow down the front of his shirt and a big stupid fake beard? I do and I've been bitter ever since.
These new pieces seem even more intense and a lot more sexual.
Simply because today life is far more intense, harsher, brighter, and a lot more sexual than yesterday.
Are you playing off the idea that kids today are even more exposed to, thus corrupted by, mass media in general?
Youth today have lost their innocence, along with the rest of us. Corruption is the currency, and if you need to repent, simply say this holy mantra: NSFW, NSFW, NSFW.
Aside from cartoon characters, your mash-up paintings contain a lot of celebrities like Oprah, Andy Warhol, and Kate Moss. Any current celebrity muses?
I like the women from 70's Playboy magazines. They look so hot, but it makes it even hotter to think that now they're all in their fifties and can't get laid.
What sort of dreams are you having now?
I had a dream last week that a crocodile was attacking me, then another night I dreamt that I was being racially discriminated because of the color of my diarrhea.
Opening party includes a set by a set by DJ Kool Herc. At 7, Saturday, Brooklynite Gallery, 334 Malcolm X Blvd., Brooklyn, 347-405-5976, free