“Hope Series No. 12” by Ben Allen, 2012
Our artist of the week: Ben Allen
Not every successful artist, of course, actually attended art college. For every alumnus of Goldsmiths College, Rhode Island School of Design or the National School of Fine Arts in Paris, there is that improviser, that freestyler – that trailblazing creative who overcomes the supposed limitations of not having been formally taught, while embracing its freedoms.
One fine example of such an artist is Ben Allen, the well-travelled Brighton native who, it’s fair to say, is as good at resisting pigeonholing as he is at performing ollies (yes, he’s an avid surfer and skateboarder, and yes, it may appear that we have just pigeonholed him – but bear with us).
You see, Allen is a free-spirited artist who isn’t afraid to be a mess of contradictions – beloved of the stars like Sir Richard Branson, Jade Jagger and Stephen Dorff, yet also a populist of sorts. By the latter, we don’t mean – of course – of the presently in-vogue Trump or Farage variety, but instead of the kind of artist who, in his own words, has “fans who are teenagers and then I’ve got fans who are pensioners, like my nan. It makes me feel really good about my work.”
Contemporary pop art without borders
In a world that seems to be increasingly returning to the notion of hard borders, Allen is exactly the boundless adventurer of an artist that the underground surfing and skateboard scenes tend to create and inspire. There’s no denying his true passions for both – his mum having bought him his first skateboard when he was “eight or nine”, while he “got into surfing at about 12. Whenever there was a wave, I’d beg, borrow or steal a board to get in the sea.”
It was precisely as a result of these interests that Allen found himself trekking around the world, “taking pictures with an SLR camera that kind of opened up the creative side of things.” Having “never gelled with school apart from art classes”, the young Allen became an enthusiast of Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and “the early skate graphics of Jim Phillips, and all the stuff coming out of Powell Peralta done by VCJ (Vernon Courtlandt Johnson) – like the skulls and Tony Hart graphics.”
But we’ll return a little later to the subject of Allen’s unusually cosmopolitan artistic upbringing – what’s no less important is what that upbringing has helped to produce. It’s an oeuvre characterised by some of the most accessible art now being created, in a ‘collage’ style that juxtaposes such seemingly unlikely motifs as the American flag and banknotes, Roy Lichtenstein-esque comic graphics, Mickey Mouse and pop colossus Madonna’s pre-fame nudes.
“Mickey Money – Neon Pink” by Ben Allen. Spray paint and archival pigment print on paper. Edition of 20, 40.0cm x 35.0cm, 2014. Image Source: benallenart
An outward-looking pop art philosophy that continues to fascinate
It’s all evidence of an ever-alert, ever-curious, ever-creative approach that prompted one observer, Peter Doherty of International Life magazine, to comment: “On one hand you’re confronted with contemporary Pop Art, on the other side, there’s more of a cultural connection to old world civilisations that throng with ritual, mysticism, spirituality and meaning. The two sides don’t make easy bedfellows but I wonder if Ben’s intention was to contrast the depth, complexity and mystery of the old and the surface and transparency of the new?”
“MANGAMEREICA” by Ben Allen. Mixed media on canvas, 100.0cm x 100.0cm, 2015. Image Source: benallenart
The artist himself places a great emphasis on “creative flow”, having told HUCK magazine that “I am constantly photographing my process and experiments. I will look at these on the computer and start playing around with digital files overlaying them. Then take it all back to the studio and mix it up on top of some collage or several backgrounds that I have on the go at any one time. There is an overall plan but it’s a process that changes to accommodate as much creative flow as possible.”
Raving critics and commercial success – from (seemingly) nothing
It’s hard not to be intoxicated by the fruits of Allen’s “creative flow” – an exotic blend of street, graffiti, graphic and pop art, encompassing all manner of media, materials and influences.
Such inspirations as Japanese graphics, typography, nature and the human condition are all evident in pieces that have earned the artist no shortage of both critical acclaim and worldly success, the latter including art displays in Selfridges and work for such other brands as Converse, Vans, Levis, Virgin, Channel 5 and Nokia.
Allen has exhibited in hotspot locations including London, New York, Singapore and LA, earned coverage in GQ, The Guardian and The Times and had his work purchased by private collectors in the UK, Australia, Barcelona, Germany, Korea, Japan, Ibiza and Hong Kong – all of this being a far-from-exhaustive list.
Incredible, then, to think that it all came from a position of zero formal art training – or complete freedom from it, depending on your perspective. As Allen has observed on that situation, again to HUCK: “I’ve had to be gung-ho and audacious about my creations and maintain a lot of self-belief because I had no formal arts training, which can be very daunting at times and at others really adrenaline filled and exciting. I’ve always felt like a bit of a misfit in this instance, but I think it’s the striving for balance between the two parallels that helps me create some of my best work.”
Certainly, if Allen’s creations are those of a misfit, here at Addicted Art Gallery, we’re extremely thankful for misfits everywhere! One can only imagine where such a limitless imagination and appetite for travel could possibly take him next.
Artist: Ben Allen. Image Source: benallenart