American History X is Ben Turnbull’s latest solo exhibition at Brixton East to be shown in four separate volumes, each stage treading its own unique story of America’s past. Part I – The Death Of America is presented using comic collage and fabricated children’s toys to tell the story. Born in 1974, Turnbull is self-taught and a keen craftsman as well as artist; he makes each piece without assistance in his own workshop. His fans and collectors include Jared Leto, Harry Styles, Jude Law, Claudia Schiffer, Johnny Lee Miller and many more. Ben Turnbull lives with his partner and dog in Battersea, London.
Volt Café: So why choose America as your subject matter? Are you pro or anti them?
Ben Turnbull: It began as escapism and to make my own world that was foreign yet familiar, as I’d been surrounded by American memorabilia at home and was obsessed with television programmes. I never thought I’d even visit the States as a kid so on reflection I was forming my own version of the U.S but in my own unique way through books, comics and toys. So the answer is, I never thought I’d get to go.
I’m not really one way or the other, I see my work as a mirror that reflects truth, be it honest or harsh. A couple of years ago, I held an exhibition which celebrated the New York fireman who had been absolute heroes during 9/11. As one of the darkest points in modern history, I was drawn to documenting the humanity that sprang from that.
VC: How do you feel about showing outside the gallery circuit and how did it come to this?
BT: I’m a massive horror fan so have been racking my brain for the perfect analogy of the Gallery system in the genre. Is it the bloodsucking vampires? Is it flesh-craving zombies? No, it’s ‘The Human Centipede’ – a gross-out repeated cycle of incestuous arse licking! It’s only when you are looking from the outside that it might as well be a commercial illustration industry with allotted time-cards for pigeonholed typecast hobbyists.
I was invited last year to do a retrospective of my work at the Lancaster Institute of Contemporary Art and it changed how I wanted to show my work. Galleries cherry-pick the most commercial pieces, distorting the narrative of the work and how it sits together. I felt that I didn’t want this interference and editing process. This work reflects where I am right now and there’s nobody telling me to edit out work that ‘isn’t commercial enough.’
Sometimes in life the hardest decision is knowing which bridge to cross and which one to burn.
VC: Were you concerned about making collages of Charles Manson and Lee Harvey Oswald? Can you explain why you’re drawn to such dark subject matter?
BT: The first two volumes of this project all stem from an unhealthy obsession with American true crime. My bedside reading has become a looming tower block of real life horror. From Bremer’s ‘The Assassins Diary’, to Bugliosi’s ‘Helter Skelter’, I’ve become more in tune with societies unwanted and forgotten people, the outcasts and the misfits. I’m also a bit of a film obsessive and I’m sure the Brian De Palma movies and watching Taxi Driver over and over have given me a darker pitch which comes out through my work.
It seems I’ve been equally cursed and blessed with a bad attitude. That can be the only explanation for being able to sticking psycho after psycho for four months to create the perfect monster! However dark and sinister, I realise that this is my kind of territory and these particular works are even more personal to me.
VC: How and where do you source the comics for your collages?
BT: It all begins with my comic dealer in the states and working out which era of comics I’m looking to get. I work with a lot of late 60’s and 70’s comics (Bronze age). I could be looking for a lot of darker tones – Luke Cage or The Falcon for a Martin Luther King piece or I could be after more boyish charm for a Kennedy – Peter Parker, Johnny Storm or Steve Rogers. For Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Manson portraits, I used the ones with a much darker and more macabre edge. If you look closely at Manson it is comprised of fearsome ghouls, so all these sinister and monstrous souls are trying to burst out of the portrait: it’s a psyche in turmoil and a devil at every turn.
VC: Do Americans ever react badly to this type of work?
BT: For some, brutal harsh realities are hard to stomach but I’m just reflecting things as I see them, there is truth and justice in this work that is based on many elements of the American way.
VC: What is your favorite place in your favorite city?
BT: This is an easy question for me to answer. Corner Bistro, Greenwich Village, New York. It’s an old spit and sawdust tavern that serves the greatest burger on planet earth and you can soak it up with McSorleys ale! Yum. I’m magnetized to that place when I’m in The Big Apple.
VC: What did you do before you became an artist?
BT: A Jack-of-all-trades but master of none! Having said that, I worked in film production, which taught me how to be a craftsman and how to make things. I started at 16 and it was a good framework for becoming an artist. I worked on a lot of productions, including Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice and the BBC’s production of Bleak House. I’ve created every piece of art myself, with no production or assistance.
VC: What influence are you under now in terms of inspiration? Artists, music, architecture?
BT: I’m in the midst of ‘Re-Reading Stephen King’ which was a project started by James Smythe for the Guardian. Reading King is like munching popcorn – totally addictive and you’ve just gotta have one more piece…
The band White Hills actually saved me from some very dark days about two years ago and in some ways were a catalyst for American History X. H-p1 is the greatest album since Nevermind.
VC: When not creating or searching what do you like to do? Tell us what your typical day off might be like.
BT: I’m a total recluse/loner so I tend to take a holiday from the real world by spending an unhealthy amount of time at the flicks. Back to back screenings are a common occurrence.
Ben Turnbull is in talk with Richard Dyer at Brixton East on 10th April at 3pm.
Ben Turnbull | American History X
Till 18th April 2014
100 Barrington Rd
London SW9 7JF
Opening times 11am — 6pm, closed Mondays
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