Benjamin Cabral

Benjamin Cabral is a multidisciplinary artist living and working in Chicago. His work has been shown throughout the United States and was selected for a public sculpture commission by the City of San Diego's Arts District. A painter by training, Benjamin's work is largely autobiographical in nature, creating an honest, yet inherently unreliable, portrait of the artist. Benjamin's recent paintings are entirely encrusted in beads and rhinestones. These paintings are conceived digitally, and the pixels are then transferred to the panel through the meditative application of beads. These works examine the intersections between trauma and nostalgia, joy and sorrow, and the digital and the analog. Benjamin also creates sculptural work, intended to be static performers engaging with viewer. Benjamin is an MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

My art practice is largely autobiographical and performative in nature. Everything I make is either a self-portrait, either in a literal sense or through a distillation of a particular aspect of my life and memories. Through my painting I deconstruct and analyze the formative years of my life from growing up within the homeschool evangelical community to my childhood participation with a mime performing arts group. These memories are reassembled it into an honest yet inherently fractured and unreliable portrait of who I am as a person.

My paintings start digitally as sketches on my iPad. I then translate them using plastic craft beads as lines and fields of color; the luminosity of the beads as well as their pixel like nature make the mimetic stand ins for the surface of the screen. The time-consuming process of laying down the beads becomes meditative, allowing for introspection. I aim to instill a sense of anxiety within the viewer that is felt rather than immediately seen.

Interview with Benjamin Cabral

Questions by Andeana Donahue

Hi Benjamin. What were some of your early encounters with art or art-making while growing up in San Diego?
San Diego has a lot of really wonderful public art pieces by Niki de Saint Phalle, and from a young age I was infatuated with her monumental figurative mosaic pieces. I also loved doing crafts; lots of trips to Michaels were made and that is something that continues to this day.

Are there any other makers in your family? Can you talk about your path to becoming a visual artist?
Both my mother and father are very creative people. My mom was a professional figure skater and a crafty lady and my dad has always been a DIY person. Though neither of them would consider themselves artists, they both definitely instilled a love of making things in me, and they always encouraged my art making. My older sister has an MA in art history and my younger sister is a graphic designer. So whether or not they wanted to, they made three very artistic children.

How has your recent grad school experience at SAIC impacted the trajectory of your work?
Though it certainly had its highs and lows, grad school was a fantastic two years. I was able to work with amazing faculty, many of whom have become my mentors. I am particularly grateful for my time working with José Lerma. He’s a legend. Living and working in such close proximity with so many amazing artists from all over the world, thinking about art and painting in so many different ways was such a valuable experience.

What are the most valuable aspects of living and working in the Chicago art community?
Chicago has an incredible, thriving DIY arts community, and I love being a part of it in any way possible. There are so many inspiring painters, and it’s so good to be surrounded with that energy when working in the studio.

Can you tell us about your current studio? Is it important for you to have a separation between your work space and domestic space?
I just moved out of the studio space that I was in for the last two years at SAIC. I am currently in the process of moving into a new studio that I am sharing with one of my best friends, Griffin Goodman. For me I think it is very important to have a separate working space from my living space. I live in a pretty small studio apartment with my cat, Mr. Skrinkles. My process is kind of messy and all over the place, and I wouldn’t want the floor of my apartment to be covered in beads. It also is good mentally for me to have the separation of work and relaxation.

Your work is largely driven by autobiography. How have your childhood memories, of both the evangelical homeschool community and performing as a mime, manifested in your practice?
I have always been very interested in telling stories and hearing others’ stories. I think it is how we as humans connect and empathize with one another. All of our lives are complicated and push beyond the limits of binary concepts like sorrow and joy, positive and negative, etc.. It is my hope that in telling stories through my paintings and touching on some of the highs and lows and happy and sad moments in my life that others can find some human connection to their lives even though our experiences might be very different. I also just think that there is something about the spectacle of mime and the aesthetic signifiers within the homeschooling community that I find poignant and fascinating and have grown to have an appreciation for.

How do humor, fear, and loss inform your choices?
I think those things inform everyone’s choices on the daily. Mine just manifest into paintings. I’m always very interested in the ways that some of these concepts that may seem mutually exclusive can co-exist with each other.

Can you talk about the frequent appearances of Tilikum throughout your work?
I grew up across the bay from SeaWorld and would fall asleep to the sound of SeaWorld’s fireworks. It was a place that was constantly in the back of my consciousness. I was fascinated by the whales’ beautiful performances but grew to be saddened when I learned of the mistreatment of the animals. For me, SeaWorld represents nostalgia tinted by the overshadowing realization of harm. I can’t simply look back at my happy memories at SeaWorld without at least acknowledging the harm and injustice of the place. And I think that this is something that translates in a lot of ways to everyone’s lives in the twenty-first century. Additionally, I am fascinated with the whale performances formal similarities to mime performances.

I know your imagery is translated from preliminary iPad sketches. Can you elaborate on the relationship between the digital and analog in your work?
I have always been obsessed with making the digital analogue. For a long time I was making meticulously airbrushed renderings of digital collages. I quickly became bored of this and wanted to work in a way that a printer couldn’t, so I decided to move further into the analogue through craft practices. The paintings are still greatly informed by the digital, and I hope that the luminosity of the beads and their pixel-like qualities transform them into a mimetic stand in for the surface of the screen.

You heavily embellish the surface of each piece through the time-intensive application of craft beads and rhinestones. What is the significance of these materials and your transition from working primarily in acrylic?
When I was growing up I was obsessed with going to amusement parks. I still am! I am fascinated with the way that they fabricate happiness through an experience based economy. There was a parade at Disneyland where they would throw out plastic Mardi Gras beads, and I loved collecting them. They were something so cheap and disposable that seemed so precious at the time. In grad school, I wanted to really match the materiality of my paintings to the subject, so I thought that using the Mardi Gras beads would be a good place to start. I love their formal quality as well. They create such a vibrant and alluring surface that really contributes to some of the dualities that I have mentioned.

Can you provide some insight into your process, from conception to completion?
Initially, I work digitally, creating a digital archive of my iPad drawings. These are usually made at home outside of the studio because I want to be able to draw without feeling the pressure of having to make an art object. My sources range from memories and experiences of my life to stories from my family’s history to remembered bits of media from my childhood. I keep an archive of these drawings and pull from it for my beaded works. The creation of each painting is long and labor intensive. Each bead is applied individually in a kind of meditative process.

How would you describe your approach to editing? What happens to work that you find to be unsuccessful?
For me editing usually comes in the early stages of my work. Because the beading requires so much time, I like to create a lot of quick sketches and then only fully realize a very small percent. Once I start painting and applying the beads things are usually pretty locked in other than perhaps changing a color or adjusting the thickness of lines

Are there specific influences that continue to inspire you? What qualities do you tend to admire most in other artists’ work?
My original art loves are Ryan Trecartin and Lizzy Fitch. I was lucky enough to experience their incredible installation at the 2013 Venice Biennale, and it was one of the first pieces that really made me excited to create art today. I love work that is visceral and over stimulating. I also love the work of Katie Stout, Raúl de Nieves, Rachel Maclean, Carroll Dunham, Jamian Juliano-Villani, and many more. Also super inspired by the group of MFA painters I just graduated with!

How has your body of work developed over time and how do you anticipate it progressing in the future?
Well I just started making the fully embellished paintings in fall of 2018, so I think I will be doing that for a little while. But I also love making sculptures and videos and exploring different mediums and modes of expression. I’m hoping to mess around with some animation and ceramics in the next couple of months.

What are some of your interests outside of art-making?
I am very interested in education and youth programming. I also have a major love for theatre. My first entrance into the arts was actually through musical theatre, so that is definitely a continuing passion of mine.

Do you maintain any personal collections?
I do! Some of my favorite pieces I own are by Skye Taniai, Yae Jee Min, Griffin Goodman, Michael Kozlowski, Caroline Jacobson, Danny Bredar, and many others! I’m always looking to add more art into my tiny apartment.

What were the best exhibitions you’ve seen in recent memory?
I recently saw a performance by two of my favorite artists, Scott and Tyson Reeder, that my friend Lauren Sullivan curated in Chicago, and it was absolutely amazing! I also really loved MCA Chicago’s recent exhibition I Was Raised on the Internet.  

What do you think the art world needs more of?
Lots of things! Is that a bad answer?

What are you working on right now? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, events, or other news you’d like to share?
I’m currently working on some new paintings that I will be showing at Seattle Art Fair this summer with Mindy Solomon Gallery. I’m cooking up lots of fun stuff in the studio!

Thanks so much for talking with us!

To find out more about Benjamin and his work, check out his website.