These Surreal Paintings Embody L.A.’s Hedonism and Spirituality

Angella d'Avignon
Mar 22, 2018 8:38PM

Ben Sanders, The Know-It-All, 2016-2017. Courtesy of Ochi Projects.

Ben Sanders, The Weight, 2017. Courtesy of Ochi Projects.

One wouldn’t easily guess that Ben Sanders’s paintings—with their red-eyed butterflies and bong-shaped, anthropomorphic vases—have their genesis in personal faith. But the works, made over the span of two years, are all based on sketches the artist made during services at his California church. The paintings, currently on view in “I Come to the Garden Alone” at Ochi Projects in Los Angeles, illustrate object lessons of personified guilt and repression—all projected onto a series of expressive 1970s Teleflora vases and oversized insects.

In order to crack open an interior world of desire and spirituality, Sanders borrows the Memphis Group’s style but ditches its pastel palette, in an attempt to render an undertone of melancholy. By utilizing the visual language of the materialistic ’80s, the artist softens the potential heaviness of his Biblical imagery. He tells micro-parables of what it means to be human.

Installation view of “I Come to the Garden Alone” at Ochi Projects. Courtesy of Ochi Projects.


The upstairs annex space at Ochi Projects houses the sketches Sanders used as smaller references for the bigger works downstairs. Smaller versions of the paintings in ink line the room, along with colored-pencil studies, offering clues to the finished product. It’s an encyclopedic insight to the mind of the artist, exemplifying the subconscious drift of drawing while he listened in church. Naturally, ideas and elements of sermons snuck into his images. “Sitting in church, I start to draw a vase and then the drawing presents itself from there, as I add the face, the environment, the symbols and props,” Sanders says. “Like a player on a stage inhabiting different scenes and wearing different costumes.”

Allegorical and Kafkaesque, each work portrays frailty and longing. From work to work, we see vases standing in as protagonists in individual scenes. (As far as who is being represented in the paintings, Sanders isn’t saying.) In the tradition of classic cartoons, the artist gives us moral fables with animated characters who meet their fate immediately: flattened by anvils, thwarted by trompe l’oeil. Their lessons are both entertainment and a warning against folly, the comedy of sin.

Sanders mixes references to both Christianity and art history. The Kiss (2018) contains allusions to both the betrayal of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and to Gustav Klimt; it’s a scene of vice featuring a nervous, rusted vase whose thick vine of a tongue unfurls to sample a fresh Negroni. In The Weight (2017), we see a similarly personified vase—this one a cool John Lennon acolyte with a push-broom mustache. He’s giving a thumbs up, even though he’s wrapped in chains. The Table (2018) nods to the Last Supper, with a picnic table whose contents—golf balls, a cheese wedge, a plated radish—are rendered with a Manny Farber-level of detail, suspended in flat perspective. Textural details augment the paintings’ themes, with framing devices composed of colorful foam pool noodles or diamond-plated polished aluminum.

Ben Sanders, The Night Ant, 2017. Courtesy of Ochi Projects.

Ben Sanders, The Power, 2018. Courtesy of Ochi Projects.

The works in “I Come to the Garden Alone” also echo L.A.’s dual nature, personified as both as a sleazy city of hedonism and one of earthy spirituality. California, after all, is the land of the megachurch (the state has more of them than any other in America). Even Angelenos who aspire to be more spiritual (rather than religious) love their crystals, cleanses, and yoga. The Know-It-All (2016–17) addresses vanity and New Age stereotypes. It shows a moon-faced, smirking vase holding a thorny stem and flattened flower bud. Framed with pink himalayan salt crystal, the message is clear: One cannot thrive without water, but at least the high desert has a juice bar.

In The Power (2018), a marble-cold vase looks down at the viewer from a flight of chiseled marble stairs lined with wilting lilies. The level of detail in the stairs is meticulous, leading the eye up and down the composition. It’s arguably the cornerstone of the series, and the only painting in the show that constitutes a self-portrait: the artist as schist-grey vessel, pale and imposing, looking over the room with authority.

Ben Sanders, The Kiss, 2018. Courtesy of Ochi Projects.

Ben Sanders, The Table, 2017. Courtesy of Ochi Projects.

Gallerist Pauli Ochi was drawn to Sanders’s paintings, whose visual strangeness and rich symbology somehow avoids being too on-the-nose. “They’re vulnerable and have a sense of humor in the way they present fear and the human condition,” she says, “which feels like an effective way to ask questions and explore ideas.”

In making the subconscious visible, Sanders inevitably shines a light on himself. The viewer can’t help but wonder if all those vases don’t characterize the inner life of the artist. Seemingly universal symbols placed in strange atmospheres both alienate and fascinate: the bong-like vase and the uneasy insect, awaiting transformation. But the answers—and, perhaps, salvation—wait outside the frame.

Angella d'Avignon