In the work of Ben Sanderson, any notion of a specific time or place falls away into a universal communion with the potency of nature.
Words by Martin Holman
Surprisingly, for an artist whose recent paintings have featured scatters of flowering plants and effusive garden borders that might also be walls, the idea of the ‘delete’ button is a tool for Ben Sanderson and his way of working. Indeed, destruction plays a central part in his making. That seemingly paradoxical approach entails reusing old canvases and not just the imagery within them. Many artists will paint over an existing work to create a new picture; Sanderson does that, too, but reuse also means taking a knife to the pictures he rejects (or ‘retires’), and cutting them into strips and squares. After separating out colours and mixing the pieces with water, he puts everything into a kitchen blender.
He says the process brings relief. “I have a lot of uncertainty about my work,” which is refreshing to hear from an artist. Doubt exists at the heart of all true creativity; few practitioners, however, will say so, regardless of their artform – whether it is literature, music, dance or painting. “I make a piece, then I go back and I doubt it. It’s an impulse in the work: when it comes to past production, sometimes all I want to do is chop it up.” In Sanderson’s case, that self-criticism propels him forward: it is one symptom of the energy that is characteristic of the man and his art. “All the energy that went into the piece is whisked up and, somehow, the blended pulp holds that energy even though the image is gone.”
Sanderson makes the most of what he touches. He still loves the natural weave of new, raw canvas, and paintings started on fresh material that are never retired to the blender retain large areas where that texture is exposed. The translucency of watercolour excites him, so does oil paint and ink, especially the thick, tacky ink used in printing that is rich in pigment. That attraction to materiality is apparent in paintings that display several techniques simultaneously to their viewers. Consequently, distinct forms of handwork co-exist in a single artwork – drawing, painting and collage, and although he usually refers to his output as paintings, they often involve printmaking techniques.
Modelling details involves brushes of different widths, but he also scratches with a stylus into wet paint or the ink on a plastic printing plate. Close attention is often needed to detect the separate stages and processes that produce the final image. He might also sew pieces of painted canvas and patch-worked offcuts onto his large-scale hangings, pictures suspended in free space like drapes or false walls. Tracks of cotton stitching layer painted strips to the unstretched canvas plane, contrasting with the brush marks or chequered borders around them. A sewing machine sits alongside his printing press as work tools in his studio. Pulping represents yet another kind of handwork. The blended residue of old work becomes literally fundamental to another cycle of paintings. The mulch is transformed into handmade paper in a simple mold Sanderson made. Once any remaining liquid is forced out under pressure it dries into a roughly rectangular shape. Pulps derived from the separated colours can be laid into the mulch as variegated patches of madder pink and indigo blue amid tones of grey to provide a unique textured ground upon which a new painting takes shape. Or they remain as an assemblage of balanced abstract forms.
Sanderson values these processes as mimicking qualities he perceives in nature. Winter dieback absorbs the previous year’s exhausted vegetation then returns it as fresh growth in spring. Indeed, the turn of the seasons acts like a metaphor for his entire practice: here, too, the seeds of the future are planted in the past. He has become aware that nature has its own time: “Works are titled with dates significant to their making. It could be the day I sat for five hours under a magnolia tree, or something much darker. The annual seasonal change, combined with lockdown, made me reconsider the mechanisms of measurement I have reluctantly relied on my whole life. Constructs such as the calendar and the clock don’t fit with the garden, in fact I’d say they miss the point… In the paintings I have become unstuck in time; I dip in and out of all the possible outcomes and everything gets mixed up.”
Time even appears to weave his pictures into existence. The make-up of ‘17/02/2022’ is as complex as the genesis of a garden. The flower heads and tendrils of stems are drawn, painted and printed with ink, watercolour, acrylic, charcoal and oil onto a support that is not a continuous sheet of paper but plaited strips of an old drawing fed into a shredder that Sanderson then neatly wove back together by hand. Within edges as organically uneven as any border in nature, a range of effects – decorative, spatial, dynamic and sensual – spring out of a system of borders within borders with which Sanderson organises his surfaces. “Walls enclose and divide,” he observes and, just as he resists the restraints of clock-time, his images instinctively break through the internal edges of the composition. “Nature is rapturous,” the artist says, a sensation he seems dedicated to projecting.
Inspiration comes from the gardens he has visited for years in west Cornwall. His favourite is Penjerrick, justifiably known as the region’s ‘true jungle garden’. Planted in the nineteenth-century, rhododendrons, camellias, magnolias, tree ferns and long-stemmed bamboo have matured into a profusion of colours, shapes and scales. Near and far appear interchangeable to the visitor navigating paths through shrubs onto which greenery has eagerly encroached.
Sanderson attributes a watershed experience in his career to another garden, Trebah. This collection of subtropical specimens extends across mixed terrain to the banks of the Helford River on the Lizard peninsula. Its significance for him is equally visual and emotional, perceptions Sanderson has incorporated into his paintings. He recalls visiting Trebah six years ago when he was struggling with what to make after an intense period of study at an innovative art research programme for nationally selected participants at progressive venues across Britain. “I was thinking a lot at home and in the studio, but nothing I made seemed to work.”
Born in Coventry, he chose Falmouth for his art degree because it contrasted with his metropolitan upbringing. Choosing to stay in the south west, he has had a studio at CAST in Helston since 2013. At university he had made a large-scale origami sculpture from wastepaper in a studio bin; a decade later, he was making satirical portraits. Drawing was a common theme and he had already started making his own paper. His interest in printmaking had recently been revived by working with St Ives-based painter Naomi Frears at her light-heartedly named, but seriously professional ‘Printmaking for Boys’ sessions. Indeed, Sanderson mentions collaborations with other artists as a notable benefit of working in Penwith.
So, although his focus had varied since graduation, the elements were there in his approach, as if awaiting the spark that brought them together in subject matter he could commit to long-term. A walk through Trebah was the catalyst to change. “The rhododendrons in flower blew me away,” he says. “The colours were wild; I had a euphoric feeling and wanted to find out what it was.” At the same time as he was assimilating the garden environment, he attended an event at CAST in Helston with London curator Gina Buenfeld. She had been researching contemporary indigenous artists and makers in the Amazon region of Brazil at risk from violent exploitation. Her talk struck a chord with Sanderson by describing how these artists’ work mapped territory, materials and processes to which they had deep spiritual connection. Throwing off the rationales of cartography and conventional time, their approach reached subjectively into details important to their sense of themselves.
In 2019, Sanderson became Trebah’s artist-in-residence. The garden offered space for thought and reflection on these topics. He organised walks with specialists that included gardeners, a psychiatrist, poets, a herbalist and ethnobotanical researcher, fellow artists and friends to discuss how the lives of plants and people interrelate. Paintings made at his studio in CAST then embedded those exchanges in imagery drawn from observation and feeling that, in 2021, formed an exhibition at rural Kestle Barton. “Since my time at Trebah, I have become fascinated by the garden’s edge, and the ways that rogue, uncultivated, uninvited species meet and mix with the carefully selected ones.” He does not aspire to botanical accuracy. The plant forms he paints as individual specimens rather than bunches are graphically recognisable as vernacular species like red valerian, dandelions, herb-Robert or cow parsley. Most importantly, he communicates their sensory essence. “The flowers in the work aren’t meant to be garden flowers. They are the ones that live in the cracks of the pavement and that are crawling up the walls.”
Sanderson looks beyond appearance into deeper associations. “Systems of power and oppression are echoed in the garden,” he points out. “Naming, categorising, cultivating, displacing, collecting and weeding.” That outlook gives further context to the references in his paintings to boundaries, edges and those constraining garden walls.
Out of these ideas have come important developments, such as his ‘holistic’ view of landscape as a vivacious retreat expressed in his contribution with other artists to a project masterminded by the art charity Hospital Rooms in London to enliven the care-centre environment in collaboration with service users. Another is present in making big paintings that almost enclose the viewer, resembling tapestries that hang like fabric walls in the gallery space. Moreover, both sides of the painting could now be worked – not in a continuous way but like a boundary wall encountered in reality, where each side has a discrete character, expressed in shape, texture and colour. The comparison with stage scenery is compelling; as well as defining a place in the way boundaries do, the surfaces acquire even greater resonances of body and spirit inside their raw, undulating edges. Any notion of a specific time or place falls away into a universal communion with the potency of nature.
Ben Sanderson has been selected for South West Showcase 2023, organised by Mirror at Arts University Plymouth, a year-long programme of mentoring and support, culminating in an exhibition at Mirror in early 2024.