By Michael Arbeiter
I was locked on the miotic pupils of the most menacing of four disembodied (and ostensibly enflamed, or at the very least fuming) heads adrift in what was very deliberately nowhere, when the refrain for “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” hit me from the bar’s ceiling. I wondered for a second if it might just be my own snotty musical tastes that rendered this coupling so vividly absurd—let me defend myself; this was the George Thorogood version—or if there could actually be something innately funny about engaging with the challenges of a thoughtful piece of fine art in a venue devoted to the dulling of the mind.
Onto the next painting—which, by virtue of a threesome of storybook ducklings making a meal of a contorting man’s innards, rang paradoxical enough without even the help of George’s bittersweet rasp—and I found a third sense stimulated. The inimitable aroma of bar food, one both appetizing and threatening (another paradox!), waded out from the table of diners seated directly below the canvas.
Again, I considered that my own gastronomical aversion to buffalo wings may be what anchored the smell so far from the element of the pictures I had come to observe. Or could I justifiably pass the buck to the establishment of art show culture that had confined its subjects’ aural and olfactory companies to strings, cheese cubes, and red wine? Author of this ideology or not, I was clearly all too beheld to it, unconsciously annotating every glimpse of artist Ben Campbell’s pieces with an asterisk. How was I expected to appropriately engage with such provocative paintings when standing at arm’s reach of a frenetic Mario Party tournament?
This question became especially prevalent when I reached my favorite of Campbell’s works:
one of ghoulish, horned face sprouting from the misery of a desert landscape.
But it was during a later battle of wits with the figure’s dead eyes that I’d win my answer. Having long given way to my inability to properly wrestle with the images while under the duress of the anxieties and distractions I’ve always shouldered upon committing myself to a night in a bar, I conceded instead to the caliber of chitchat I’ve always relied on to stave off my demons during such nights. Movie talk, mostly.
And, in the tradition of my lifetime of paralyzing social outings, I eventually found myself yielding verbal contribution to the conversation that swept my table.
The friends I had arrived with chatted easily with a relative stranger about the history of police violence in Los Angeles. The artist himself chimed in when asked to divulge the mindset that accompanied one particular painting: a faceless naked man falling upside down through yet another harrowing nowhere. Eventually, as it always does, the conversation moved onto Mario Party.
Conceding no formidable education in psychology, American social history, or any game that came out after 1996, I kept largely silent, allowing for my ritual absent glance around the
busy room. Inevitably, my eyes landed again on the chilling face illuminating her desert home to eternal dusk. Squinting between heads and glasses to catch the eye of my distressingly humane monster, I was only then forced to admit yet another area of cerebral deficiency: where, why, and with whom art belongs.
I couldn’t tell you what I may have gathered from a head-to-head to Campbell’s pieces in a well lit and silent gallery, a locale where my motionless ruminations wouldn’t have been at the expense of many the high-speed bar back. But I can tell you that a cockeyed and cloudy peep of that nightmare humanoid growing inscrutably from the dead sand,scored to some forgettable ’80s hit and snippets of my friends’ assessment of a recent viewing of Straight Outta Compton, tore me away from my own pretensions with just enough a reason to assert that this painting did work just fine where it was. Because right then, I liked it.
-Ben Campbell’s work will remain on display at Lantern Hall through September 2016.