'Ben Cove's Work: The Limits of Language' - A Text by Morgan Quaintance

The following text has been provided courtesy of Morgan Quaintance and is entitled ‘Ben Cove’s Work: The Limits of Language’. The text has been created in response to our Main Space exhibition 'Double Dutch', an exhibition of Ben's work.

The first time I saw the work of Ben Cove it made an immediate and deep impression on me. I came across it in 2015 at The London Open, Whitechapel gallery’s triennial and submission-based group exhibition. Every three years it offers visitors a chance to see ‘the most innovative work across the capital’, but my expectations weren’t high. The few times I’d been before weren’t that revelatory. Still, there’s always the chance of stumbling upon some brilliant work. That day I didn’t have to wait long. 

Ben’s paintings were hung at the furthest end of Whitechapel’s ground floor. Although a fair amount of art was scattered about the place, his seemed to be positioned at the compositional starting point in the room’s arrangement of assorted works. That is to say, every exhibition, at least every exhibition that I’ve curated, has a main work, a painting, video, or sculpture that is the first thing hung and around which all the rest of the room is arranged. Whether that was the case with Ben’s work or not I don’t know, but I was drawn to it upon entry and the impact was instant.

After nearly a decade of looking at contemporary art, I’ve come to recognise what happens when I experience significant work. There is a kind of all at once affect, an instant in which two realisations occur simultaneously: total aesthetic appreciation, in that the look and feel of a thing, the colour, shape, texture or structure elicits a pleasurable retinal and emotional response; and total understanding, in that I comprehend why certain formal decisions were made, what art historical precedents have been thought through in order to arrive at this material (or immaterial) destination, what rules have been broken and  impasses surmounted.  

The two pieces in exhibition at Whitechapel were works in Ben’s series of photograph and painting combinations. Both featured a selection of paintings hung against the backdrop of two large black and white photographs. In each picture visitors to an exhibition of so-called ‘primitive art’ were captured in the act of inspection. The pictures looked to be taken during the late 1950s or ‘60s. This was the era of high-modernist abstraction and so I understood the collision of that epoch and all of its attendant historical socio-cultural and political references – civil rights, the cold war, abstract expressionism, the dawn of the information age etc. – with the dizzying amalgam of geometrical abstraction in Ben’s work (googie architecture, neoclassical kitsch, African art, etc.) as a kind of thrilling dramatic tension between orthodoxies referenced, undermined and subverted. Were Ben’s paintings placed across the surface of the images to suggest projections of the imaginative responses to primitive forms the spectators in the photos were surveying? In his choice of subject in each photograph selected as background (in one it’s two women looking, in another it’s two black males), was a point being made about the enfranchisement of marginalized peoples in the 20th century and the privileging of their gaze in relation to the patriarchal, classificatory impulses of the museum? What about Clement Greenberg? Although this giant of mid 20th century art criticism is seldom talked about today, Ben’s territory of abstraction brought his work into contact with so-called ‘Greenbergian flatness’, or the idea that any attempts at illusion or the suggestion of three dimensional space on the canvas or flat surface, were a retrograde step on painting’s course towards abstract purity. Was Ben’s embrace of kitsch and abstraction, exaggerated flatness and blatant illusionistic techniques (techniques that suggested foreground and background relations between objects within the frame) both a celebration and rejection of this legacy? 

In the process of interpretation, drawing ideas or conceptual linkages out of works is seductive. But in some cases it can also diminish what is in front of you. Ben’s work was all of the above things, but it was also none of them too. I could make those linkages and art historical associations, and they would be plausible, but there was something so ineffably and obviously right about his paintings that any attempt to explain or capture them with words seemed pointless, and doomed to fall into pretension. Put simply, you just needed to see Ben’s work to get it; anything else seemed sort of superfluous. Perversely this is what made me want to meet him. 

Since 2012 I’ve been producing and presenting a radio show on Resonance 104.4FM called Studio Visit. The programme features an hour-long interview between a contemporary artist and myself. The format allows for free flowing, casual conversation and the opportunity to get to the heart of an artist’s practice at an unhurried, natural pace.  I wanted to have Ben on the show primarily because I loved his work, but also because I knew that it would be a difficult conversation. If an artist’s work is about something, if it is exploring some socio-cultural or political subject matter, then time can be spent investigating that territory. But if a work has no subject matter, if it’s about nothing except its form, then talking about it is a real challenge. That’s even more the case when it comes to abstract and almost completely non-representational painting like Ben’s. 

In the pub after the interview we wound down over a couple of beers and talked about the future. Ben mentioned his upcoming exhibition at Aspex and we talked over the possibility of my writing an accompanying text. But, in the weeks that followed we both got sucked into busy schedules. I had to let him know I’d be unable to get something together as I was overwhelmed with work. It’s true. A hundred and one things were happening at my job, I had a load of writing deadlines, and masses of research to do for Studio Visit. But there was another reason. I knew that writing about Ben’s work was going to be an almighty challenge, because I firmly believed his paintings, sculptures and assemblages needed to be seen and experienced, rather than theorised and interpreted. In other words I felt, and still feel, like I come up against the limits of language when interpreting Ben’s work in text. That’s why writing this has been such a struggle. It’s a thankless task really. In the end you just have to stand in front of the work and take it all in. It’s a state of affairs that I couldn’t be happier with.  What is a defeat for me is a triumph for Ben’s work.

'Double Dutch' runs until 29 August.