Man of Many Frequencies : The conceptual meanings of Ben Hall.
By Marina Garcia-Vasquez
The subterranean studio apartment is a laboratory of experimentation. It is a room where light filters in at street level from the Hudson River side of Harlem. Things are placed around the apartment precariously, but by design and with order: potted plants and cuttings in juice jars perched on the window sill; drum upon snare drum; a wall of musical soundboards; piles of paper for tax filing; boxes from Amazon; art book stacks by people like David Hammons; sparse furniture; and a bed. Ben Hall stands over five spray bottles he’s just unpacked from mail-order boxes. He lines the gallon-sized plastic bottles, takes note of their corporeal capacity, realigns them, stands back and goes about addressing them again. He is a man of tinkering, a mine of invention.
Hall is a conceptual artist whose sculptures are collected objects with a focus on composition, an employment of commercially manufactured products that are often neglected such as pedestrian things from deflated basketballs and rusted tambourines to cinder blocks and plywood. This Duchampian veneration of objects is more in line with Hammons’ arte povera movement of politicizing found objects. Hall’s artwork is in conversation with Detroit, the city where he was born and raised, questioning wasteful consumerism, debilitating unemployment rates, and a community pocked by globalization. Inspired by the social commentary of John Chamberlin and Tyree Guyton’s public art installations of the 70s and 80s, Hall wants to tell his own story about Detroit. His work is in observance of what remains. His hunkered sculptures are metaphors for human toil, resilience, and transformation.
David Hammons performing ‘Bliz-aard Ball Sale’ (1983), Cooper Square, New York City
Courtesy Migros Museum, Zurich © David Hammons. Photo: Dawood Bey
Tyree Guyton “The Heidelberg Project” Detroit, MI
Standing at 6’1, Hall is an imposing character with an athletic build. His physical stature is softened by his ability to reign in charming conversation rife with puns. He quickly animates with a roguish smile and gesticulating hands. He will speak tangentially about any subject for long amounts of time. He is self-aware and swaggering. His quick wit and penchant for entwining highbrow academic language with street vernacular is unyielding. Hall has an analogy for everything from quoting great philosophers to sports culture. Take the one about the art world being like a timed boxing match or the odds of garnering a Chelsea art gallery like winning the lottery. His stories mean to translate experience from deliveryman to art curator. Hall will strike a chord with you and lead you through a spirited dialogue. Hall likens explaining his art to how Chomsky riffs on sports casting. “You navigate the world of critical analysis and statistical analysis.”
Ben Hall. Photo: Detroit Waldorf School, HOUR Detroit.
At 34, Hall lives by the notions his artwork investigates, notions like human toil, resilience, and transformation. He is an artist without a formal statement, a person who declines to be classified or boxed. With steely blue eyes and honeyed-spiraled hair, he is of mixed race, black and white, someone who can slink around multiple social circles. His art is informed by his many incarnations: famed graffiti writer, soul records archivist, experimental jazz percussionist, and a deli owner. He speaks of all of his experiences with equal gravitas, one directly informing the other. He says, “Owning a restaurant is a performance. I want to make the thing better, more dense, filled with different frequencies. The same process is behind it, whether it’s food, music, or visual arts.”
Hall maintains his downtown Detroit home base and actively runs his Russell Street Deli while in school with his best friend and business partner, Jason Murphy. The two have a parallel path, having met 14 years ago when they worked as dishwashers at the deli they now own. They both studied art at Bennington College and having grown up without parents to champion their art practice or education, they rely heavily on each other for professional feedback and support. Murphy says, “A lot of people are commenting on a Detroit situation that has already been covered, abandoned landscapes of ruin porn of post-industrialist America.
Ben’s work is mindful of what he is trying to talk about, of what has come before him, and who he is in conversation with.”
Taking inspiration from message-heavy artists like Jenny Holzer and Adrian Piper, the sculpture work Hall creates promotes uncompromising spiritual ambition. The work isn’t pretty per se, but is wondrous and smart. Hall received national attention when Luis Corquer, then-curator of the Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MoCAD) included his sculpture work in the exhibition “Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism” that traveled to Hyde Park Art in Chicago. Both Corquer and Shefman agree that Hall’s gumption and stealthy determination for reinvention make him an interesting artist to invest in.
Once Upon A Time In The Projects–MDF, Enamel, Mirrored Glass–62″ X 30″–2011
Hall’s creative process starts with a bike ride around Detroit. He takes photos and waits for things to catch his eye, like abandoned houses, floating chip bags, and forgotten medicine balls. He goes home and makes lists of the items he’s seen, and sometimes takes the objects back to his 3,000 square feet studio, like the medicine ball that later became the focal point for a piece called “Family”. The piece is a nestling of dismembered basketballs within a display case made from bullet-resistant glass. “I like this idea that they are not finished. I have all of these basketballs but they are not done. Not the last point in their life. They still have all of this use value. When do you find things that are perfect circles made in the world? You don’t,” he says.
Take for instance the corporeal plastic bottles Hall was rearranging in his apartment. He was reworking an earlier manifestation of a composition of four handheld spray bottles standing on two rusted tambourines. After serious deliberation, he clusters the handheld sprayers with yellow heads with the four larger industrial bottles on tambourine stands. He’s scraped off the S’s on the bottle labels so they now read “Prayer,” a subtlety that could easily be missed by the viewer. The final piece he titles “Petitional”, referencing a plinth liturgical experience and somehow we, too, are on our knees in search for meaning.
Growing up, Hall remembers passing by open garages with men working under their cars. He likens his process of making art to repairing junked cars in a garage. This revisionist theory of special brooding over a device lays claim to a goal-based construction. It is a masculine praise for mechanics working to debunk the preciousness of a white box art practice, and as a result, is guttural and clunky. Hall says of the garage men, “They would do this highly technical work, highly aestheticized work. It would be this process that was so highly evolved, so specific, and so skilled. I am not saying that it’s art, but there is a kind of practice of doing a thing over and over and thinking about a thing and restructuring how we think about things and restructuring space. Instead of working on a Mustang, I am producing contemporary art.”
Hall’s work moves in and out of meaning. Is Hall speaking of personal experience or is he using his works as vessels for a community without voice? As his art practice furthers will it too become global? A state of consciousness and unconsciousness, works imploding with meaning, works defying meaning. In the same way, Hall’s sculptures address race and class. There is a semblance there, a teetering of truth. He says, “Pynchon does that, Frank Stella with ‘What you see is what you see’, Kant’s unknowable about the ‘thing-in-itself’. When we employ a concept, it’s analysis of the working of the world.”
Once Upon a Time in the Projects No. 02 — Birch, Mirror — 70″x54″ — 2010
Hall’s “Once Upon a Time in the Projects” is a title aptly taken from a single on Ice Cube’s 1990 Amerikkas Most Wanted album. The sculpture is a square made up of plywood boxes with mirrored siding. Like an M.C. Escher sketch built around impossible objects in mazed symmetry, Hall’s “Once Upon” piece grafts a labyrinth of living with vacant progress. It speaks of the arced resilience of a people stagnate for generations, something of a phoenix rising, the unrecognized currency of the forgotten. Begum Yasar, assistant curator at L&M Arts in Manhattan is considering the installation for a show around the themes of the techno-scientific sublime, globalized, and irreversible capitalism. Yasar believes the work references minimalism in its repetition of standardized units as housing projects and Hall’s use of industrial ready-made materials is in association with working class neighborhoods. She says, “The title gives it something that minimalism doesn’t have and in fact refused to have, which is a socio-political dimension.”
His sculptures associated with nature come in the form of tree trunks as limbs coiled in metal fences. Their titles are “The Clothes on Your Back,” parts three and four. They are the most physical manifestations of body-like members in his work, trunks contained and working to free themselves from chain-like associations. He says, “Obviously there is a metaphor there for nature. A kind of living thing dealing with its environment, and growing through a cage. It only exists in bondage. They are not free until they die in a certain way, but they still live. It’s a very strange oscillating state that they exist in.” An allusion to a Rainer Maria Rilke poem is made.-
“Space spreads transposingly from us to things: really to feel the way a tree upsprings, cast around it space from that which inwardly abides within in you. Surround it with retention. It has no bounds.”
Vs. Skins-C Print on Fleece–100″ x 88″–2012
The heightened attention of the tree as an object outside of its natural environment reconstructs and elevates the notion of liberation punctuated by it’s art studio existence.
This determination for freewill can also be witnessed in a collection called “Fleece Blankets”, where photographs of the interiors of snack-sized chip bags are printed on fleece blankets. The pieces are reminiscent of Marilyn Minter’s use of photography to impart an intimacy with objects. Hall emphatically explains, ” I don’t want them to be defined as one object.”
The Clothes On Your Back Pt. 02 -Wood, Steel, Marble. 60″ x 55″ x 80″, 2011
Hall prefers to keep his meanings open-ended and defiant to any one demarcation of experience. It is this hard-lined emotion can be read as legacy with a fair dose of alpha-maleness. With fervor he says, “I am not constrained to move in a world of only whiteness or blackness.” African American thinkers, artists, and authors still mostly inform his material monologues. He insists, “I imagine I’ll always read ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison.” He says his next installation is to objectify a sound that Ellison describes in his book. It is a sound emitted from a Harlem basement and in this declaration he conjures the writings of Fred Moten from his book “In the Break, Aesthetics of Black Radical Tradition” with notions of improvement to the vernacular and geographical class dynamics. Hall in all of his declarations is still steadfast about location and meaning and still loyal to his Detroit upbringing and experience. Hall cites the epilogue in “The Invisible Man” quoting Ellison’s character whose mere existence is forsaken, “…on the lower frequencies I speak for you.” He revels in this idea of frequency of meaning that can build through time and cognition and can resonate and build.
Hoop Dreams, Basketball Rims and Formica and MDF, 2008 78″x78″
This interview, was conducted during his last year at Columbia University’s MA Program in the Arts.
Marina Garcia-Vasquez is a contributing writer for by such and such.