In the Studio with Ben Schonzeit
Such an apparently radical departure from Photo-Realism requires some explanation. At my core I am a figurative artist. Before doing the photo-based pieces I am known for, I was making shaped canvases and carved wooden sculpture. Making sculpture felt like too much fun to be serious. I abandoned sculpture as a serious part of my work in 1970. It was then that photography became the vehicle to bring the world into my studio leading to painting pictures and ultimately to Photo-Realism. The camera also drove me out of the studio and into the world. As photography dominated contemporary life, I began to take fewer and fewer photographs and found myself reverting back to more immediate handcrafted work. Concurrent with my photorealist work was this quasi-cubist work based solely on experience and imagination. More and more I wanted to surprise myself, to see things that have never been before. The collages, watercolors, paintings, multiples and sculpture share a unified vision with deep history. What I cannot do with photography and photo-realism is best reconstructed through improvised drawing, painting and memory.
Recent collages have led me to painting in oil and making sculpture once again. The materials used to make the collages often will not last. Anything made of paper is fair game. Much of the raw material in the sculpture comes from the street and yard sales. Newsprint fades and disintegrates rather quickly. Anything printed commercially will dramatically change color with time. The ephemeral nature of collage parallels life. In time they will mature acquiring a patina showing their age. That being said, the longevity of my work is very important to me. The much larger prints of the collages will last for a very long time and have a reality beyond the actual collages. In a way they are more real and three-dimensional than the collage originals.
Coming out of the Twentieth Century with a foundation in Cubism, Abstraction, and Surrealism, I have now dedicated myself to this “Modernist” idiom. As a student at the Cooper Union, I made work that most emulated Picasso and Matisse with a serious tilt towards Brancusi. Although this “Modernist” idiom seems like a stark departure from my photorealism, it actually has been a part of my overall view of all my styles. Two years ago, at seventy-four, I began creating sculpture more seriously than ever before. The sculptural and tactile look of related watercolors inspired three-dimensional iterations of the subjects within them. This is exactly what I’m doing now. I do not directly base the sculpture on preliminary sketches. I work directly with both plastic, and cut and found materials. When doing photo-realism for me the space between objects in the source photo is more important than the photograph itself. My aim was to destroy the flatness of the photograph through creating sculpture which is a kind of three-dimensional collage combining found materials. My hope for the sculpture is to have some pieces fabricated in more durable materials, perhaps steel, concrete or bronze since most are in wood or plastic. I can imagine many in public spaces on a grand scale. To best document the nature of the sculpture, we have made small stop motion videos to demonstrate their personalities and potential.
As film cameras become antique novelties and photography overwhelms the social media and our environment, imagined and invented artwork gains ground. The hand, the human touch and invented carries a different truth that is completed by the viewer’s imagination. It is in the sympathetic response of one human to life that we recognize ourselves. I see it as the truth of fiction where invention combines with reality to create powerful and imaginative work. The pleasure of producing this work is in the characteristic exuberance and joyous liveliness of these pieces. I love the fiction, dance and the theater of it!
View more of Ben Schonzeit’s work in our project for the New York Hall of Science.