Ben Ashton born London, 1983.
Ben Ashton challenges us to look at what we are seeing and to question it by giving us a different perspective on a familiar world. His is one of the most exciting and original artistic visions of recent years: a Ben Ashton work is immediately recognisable for its finesse and exquisite skill, but also for the simple fact that it is totally different from anything else on the contemporary art scene.
Since receiving his Masters from the Slade School of Fine Art, Ashton’s work has concentrated on the recurring themes of performance and voyeurism. By repeatedly putting himself at the heart of his work, he becomes both the subject and the object, the character and the painter, the artist and his model.
In this exhibition, Ashton refines and progresses these ideas, playing with notions of spatial awareness and historical context to encourage us to dig beneath the surface and discover the unexpected narratives that nestle beneath.
Ashton uses historical works as his starting point and then literally puts himself in the picture: in order to produce a work, he will first take a photo of himself in character and then paint or create an installation from the photograph. Each stage is a further layer of artifice, a conscious evolution that seeks to capture the intricacy of illusion and collusion: the artist is inside his paintings and yet he is outside them too, as both critic and creator.
“The focus of this series started with an interest in celebrity,” explains Ashton. “I would often walk around the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery for inspiration and I realised that the notion of celebrity hasn’t really changed that much through the centuries: there is always a sense of what this person wanted to portray about themselves, about the pose they wanted to strike.”
By taking inspiration from real-life historical portraiture, Ashton seeks to subvert the concept of celebrity and fame by distorting both the sitter and the artist’s original intent. His work is a performance, an exercise in theatrics that transforms the familiar with an innovative, contemporary twist and shoots an arrow through our preconceptions. Ashton plays with the fakery at the heart of celebrity portraiture and encourages us to peep behind the curtain in order to see what is actually going on. In Gloriana (2009), the intricately-rendered Elizabethan ruff is actually constructed from polythene shopping bags. In Josh (2009), the historical pose is contrasted sharply by the modern-day zip-up tracksuit top. “I’m playing someone else, but I’m always inherently there myself,” says Ashton. “What I am doing here is creating a myth and yet no-one ultimately knows who I really am, which is beautiful in a way.”
It is an approach influenced by Ashton’s growing interest in stereoscopic photographs — pictures that give the illusion of three dimensions by presenting a slightly different image to each eye. Here, again, the emphasis is on altered realities and self-deception. “There is a willing suspension of disbelief,” says Ashton. “People want to be fooled, they want to be taken out of themselves. A lot of my work is about taking myself out of myself. I want people to walk away from my work with a certain amazement with the illusion.”
Ashton gained a First Class degree in Fine Art from Newcastle University before going on to study for his Masters at the Slade School of Fine Art. Selected Exhibitions, Selected Exhibitions & Residencies: The Brain Unravelled, London, 2009 (alongside Antony Gormley); artist-in-residence at the 2008 Slade Summer School; Ascension, London, 2008; shortlisted for the Lynn Painter-Stainers Prize 2009 and current artist-in-residence at The Bloomsbury Studio, which is run and subsidised by Simon Oldfield Contemporary Art.
By Elizabeth Day, feature writer for The Observer