Ben Ashton's new portrait series The King is Dead, Long Live the King marks the artist´s break with past works and techniques. Precision, stability, and calculated poses are being replaced by a restlessness of movement and body, which evokes the inescapable tensions defining human spirit. Dichotomies and contradictions announce a recurring clash of the corporeal with itself, a chase for meaning beyond the limits of materiality, which eventually creates new life.
This struggle with containment marks a refusal of rigor, of the predictable. Sensuality mirrors a balance of primordial forces at work in these scenes that resemble a dance, a ritual that celebrates life and touches on possibilities of immortality. Bare bodies, ripe and fertile, are evocative of pristine metaphysical strength and vitality, which seem to threaten the very physicality that reflects them. In Mov.2: Thrust, the clash of corporeal harmony with the uncontainable tumult of spirit and thought is apparent. The flesh is always in search for thought, and thought yearns for senses and corporeality.
In Mov.2: Vault and Transfiguration, the artist employs a religious visual code, referencing biblical imagery, and juxtaposing elements of the human with traces of the more-than-human. These pieces speak to Ashton´s reverence for art history, and to his complex, scholarly relationship with the visual canon of figurative painting. Although falling within the larger visual language of this series, these works are easily recognisable as religious references, which points to the collective memory of humanity we all share.
The series contains self-portraits and portraits of the artist´s wife and child, in what appears to be an exploration of the spatiality of love. Where do I end and where do they begin? could be the underlining question here. The shapes and blurs present in every painting are consistent with Ashton's choice of a “new fluidity,” and can be seen to reflect a dissipation of the borders of self, a necessary erasure of corporeal limits, and a shift towards a mode of bodily expression that encompasses its surroundings.
These “secondary figures,” as the artist calls them, are stand-alone entities, simultaneous traces of past presence and imagined shapes of the future. They mediate a reflection on the necessary interconnectedness of humanity; they follow the body, in a sort of a magnetism of being and non-being, a longing for the other and their contradictions. We need each other to survive, they seem to express. Indeed, this embracing of the duality of existence is what Ashton marks as a red thread of this series. The Apollonian, the cerebral and conceptual, and the Dionysian, the corporeal and bestial, meet in these works, defining both the artist´s creative relationship with his wife, Fiona, and a self-reflective understanding of his artistic practice.
The playful tension between uncovering the body and covering the face speaks, again, to a perpetual search, a refusal of stoic acceptance of one´s existence. I come to ask: could we ever know ourselves, remember ourselves, if we weren´t able to see our faces? Identity seems to be dependent upon visually determined self-recognition. What´s interesting is that these mask do not really cover, but transform. They mark an attempt to establish a taxonomy of a split, complex self, to counter any rigidity or determinism of being. Every masks invites the possibility of morphing; the visual fluidity of these works translates into a reflection on always becoming, a refusal of delineated identity.
The child, however, does not wear a mask. This new life, marking the end of the world as we know it, does not yet know limits; he embodies endlessness, beauty, and strength, as his daring gaze knows no restrictions. As we return his gaze, we encounter a primordial honesty, purity, and joy, as we remember our past and dare to dream of a better future.
The King is Dead, Long Live the King is open at Cob Gallery until 29th October.
Read: In Conversation with Ben Ashton -->
Words: Elena Stanciu
Artist: Ben Ashton