BLUR Visits Fiona Ross and Joshua Bienko

Last week, BLUR participants toured the studios of VCCA visual artist Fellows Fiona Ross and Joshua Bienko. BLUR (The Blue Ridge Summer Institute for Young Artists), is a three-week camp for high school students focused on the arts. The program focuses on new approaches to creative writing, visual art and theatre, challenging old ideas about what art is and what it isn’t and thus blurring long-held, distinctions and attitudes. Held at Sweet Briar College’s 3,250-acre campus, BLUR uses intense study, collaboration and hand-held digital technology (each student is given an iPad as part of their tuition) to explore the way art will be made in the future. The goal is a more deep understanding of their chosen and ancillary fields.

Richmond artist, Ross has always been interested in the way things grow, accumulate and change over time and she likes to play with imitating and utilizing natural processes. In her new body of work, she utilizes acrylic paint on polypropylene “paper.” Her forms are made with translucent layers of color that interact and alter as the paint slowly evaporates, leaving both her intentional markings and arrangements as well as natural formations of ripples and curves caused by the evaporation process. 

This particular fascination with the effects of hydration and dehydration started with Ross’s ceramic sculptures and spilled over into her ink on paper figures, landscapes and labyrinths. According to Ross, “In these new works, the forms are born of an internal dialogue of intuitive responses to situations that develop in the process of their creation.”

Ross uses tracing paper, which helps her figure out ideas—allowing her to see the effects of multiple layers and also “keeps things from becoming too precious.” She likens these works to a pan of lasagna comprised of many layers with tracers underneath the finished polished work.

Much to the interest of her teen audience, Ross was sporting an elbow-length striped sock on her arm, in which she had cut an opening in the toe for her fingers. It turned out it wasn’t the most recent fashion trend from Brooklyn, but was worn it to protect the paper from skin oil, which will cause it to resist paint. An added benefit, Ross noted, was the sock caused her arm to slide easily across the page.

Ross was clear about the benefits of her VCCA residency: “It’s really valuable time with no distractions, a great chance to try things out. Having things taken care of like meals is huge. On Thursday, when I leave I’ll have to juggle everything again. At home, there are so many distractions. Here it’s more meditative, there’s nothing else to do and everyone is focused on their work. You can feel the energy in this building. Everybody’s concentrating, so you’re concentrating too. It’s contagious.”

It was great for these young artists to watch a successful artist who is fearless about exploring different things using an imaginative and unexpected approach to materials and art making.

Ross ended the visit with these words of inspiration: “My message to you as a ceramic artist is don’t be afraid to change gears if you’re working in something right now, it doesn’t mean you’re committed to it forever and ever. You can start out as a painter or someone who draws and you can end up making heavy sculpture. Make what you want to see in the world.”

Next we traveled down the hall to the studio of Joshua Bienko who provided a lively
discourse on philosophy, popular culture, contemporary art and the practice of art making. He had his young female audience when he showed them an image of several pairs of black Christian Louboutin stilettos purchased en mass at Nieman Marcus, the red soles of which he’d painted with perfect little partial views of iconic contemporary art, rendering them totally useless as shoes, but more valuable as art.

This playing around with value and consumerism is very much a part of Bienko’s tightly rendered, nearly photographic paintings that skewer the likes of Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami and combative pro basketball player, Ron Artest (now known as Metta World Peace). Bienko has incorporated into the paintings a Louis Vuitton-like monogram he created from philosopher/psychoanalyst, Jacques Lecan’s formula of desire.

“Having an idea that is thought out deeply and philosophically to my satisfaction, and then executing it, is a fine way to work, but for me it’s feeling stale so I’ve transitioned,” he says. “Now, I’m painting on neoprene mat. I still don’t know why. I love the objectness of the neoprene. It doesn’t look like a canvas, it looks like a hunk of junk.” Indeed, he reverted to using an old dull knife, when he found the new one left too smooth an edge.

“So I‘m really thankful for a residency because I’m doing my best to not think at all about what I’m making I sit down at a canvas (neoprene) and remember a dream, or I think of an image and I try and execute it. I’m not trying to articulate a perfect basketball player in photorealism, but trying my damndest to recreate the memory of an image that was in my head.”

He also tried painting Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, “a work that won’t leave me alone” from memory. “I wanted to make a picture, from the perspective of the ceiling lamp. I don’t think I would have been able to do something so weird if not for time like this to really let weird happen. So often, I think we censure our good art right out of existence because we’re afraid it will be bad or fail. We should let some of that weird happen.”

Bienko challenged the BLUR students to be brave and trust themselves, stressing again and again the explorative and experimental nature of art. In many cases, he has no idea why he decides to do something like paint Jean-Fran├žois Millet’s L'Angelus on a pair of Nike Air Force 1s. But he does it anyway, and generally after some time elapses, it becomes clear why he went in that direction. “I am trying to get better at allowing myself to not know what I’m doing and figure it out after.”
Meanwhile, he reads voraciously, everything from Paulo Freire to Ludwig Bemelmans, and he draws all the time. “Just so you don’t think I don’t practice what I preach,” he told the students, pointing to a pile of drawings on the floor. “You have to draw all the time. Constantly. It doesn’t matter if you’re a sculptor or a performance artist, or a dancer, this is how you think of the world and respond to it creatively. Drawing is the whole thing; it’s everything.”


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