In the studio with Yael Ben-Simon

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Discover the studio of Yael Ben-Simon whose practice explores the relationship between propaganda, identity, magic and symbol making through painting.

Joanna Hirsch visited the studio of Yael to speak with her about her work. Read the full interview below.

interview with yael ben-simon

Joanna: So could you tell me about your background? Where you’re from, where you went to school?

Yael: So a little bit about me – I grew up in Israel. I went to school in Jerusalem for my BFA and after that I moved to Chicago to pursue my MFA. I graduated in 2015 and since then I’m in the US working on my practise. 

Joanna: Have you always been a painter?

Yael: Yes. I think during school I started as a painter and obviously when you’re going through art school there are so many areas to pursue and discover. I kinda flirted with sculpture and photography because that’s what they encourage you to do at art school. I had a period when I was like, I’m not gonna do painting anymore because I was kind of frustrated with it. But then I did an exchange programme in New York and going there I decided I wouldn’t do painting, I would just do other things. But I kinda went back to painting, unintentionally. I think painting is my way of saying things and I feel most comfortable, but also most challenged by. So it’s kind of weird in that sense. Because painting is so hard, but I feel at home when I’m painting. 

Joanna: What made you choose to use different mediums?

Yael: I explore different mediums because I like to have complexity in my work and I like to have layers and when I’m developing my composition and my paintings I think a lot about textures and how every element would be depicted. So I treat every part of the painting the way it deserves to be. So that’s kind of what calls for a different approach, a different medium and I like experimenting with different materials a lot…make something new, discover a new technique, or you know, maybe by mistake I do something that would add another tool to my toolbox, so that’s fascinating for me. That’s why I’m all over the place.

Joanna: Could you tell me how you use your computer and your digital processes in your paintings?

Yael: So I use computer a lot. I use technology. For me it’s just another tool to develop my paintings and to execute them. So, they first start off as a model in a 3D animation programme that’s called Blender. Basically what you do in this programme is you create your own world, like you do in animation and films. My approach to it is sculptural; I build elements on top of each other and recently they’re all contained within a box. The box element re-appears in my painting. It’s like a structure for all of them and I have a period of time where I dedicate solely to making these models on the computer. So it would take me a few weeks to develop and to think about new paintings in that way. So the way this programme works is you can actually create worlds and bring models from all over and build your own models and build your own elements and after I’m satisfied with the model, I render it and make an image out of it. So, that’s my road map, if you will. Then after I make this I try to determine which way is best to depict those and to transform what I had in the computer to actual paint, so it’s like the translation mode. The process I use, screenprint, recently, which is also something that’s kind of analogue, but I use digital images to make the stencils and I use photoshop of course during my work on the piece. Before that I used to work a lot with stencils and I used to print them. I have a special printer for that. 

Joanna: You make your own stencils?

Yael: Yeah, but recently I haven’t been using that that much. 

Joanna: You said it takes you a few weeks to do the render.

Yael: Yeah 

Joanna: Do you work on one piece at a time and if you do how long would it be from your start to your finished painting?

Yael: I try to work on a few pieces together. Just because there are… I kind of see them as family, so I work on them together and I have a lot of things to do at a time. So for example when I put a layer of paint and I wait for it to dry, I can work on other stuff. In a painter practise there is a lot of dead time where you wait for things to dry or you prepare paint, so it allows me to work on a few things concurrently without looking at the paint. 

Joanna: What brought you, or can you tell me what you felt when you moved to New York and how has New York influenced your practise if it has?

Yael: I can’t really say specifically how New York has impacted my practise, but it’s such a great thing to be able to be in a place where you consume art on a daily basis and you get to see all the most amazing artists.

We were saying about the novel that this kid had so many drawings of animals and he kept obsessively making those to prove that he has a soul and that he’s worthy of redeeming. Because the kids in the novel are destined to be… their organs are to be harvested for…

Joanna: Oh I know this!

Yael: Yeah, for sick people. So he wanted to convince the headmaster of the school that… in the centre of this novel… that he has a soul and his fate should not be as his friends.

Joanna: Gosh I read that, I think a few years ago.

Yael: Yeah.

Joanna: I’m gonna read it again.

Yael: It’s really heartbreaking, 

Joanna: So you enjoy reading obviously. 

Yael: Yeah I really enjoy literature. I try to read as much as I can but sometimes it’s not feasible but the fox… I have a fox series. It’s based on a fable, an old jewish fable about this fox who sees a hole in the fence of a vineyard, but he can’t get in because he’s too fat. So he comes up with a plan that he would not eat and he would get slim and then he could go inside the vineyard because there is all these amazing grapes there that he can feast on for days. So the plan works and he manages to get in and then he feasts on the grapes for days on end and then he gets fat. But he has to get out. So he has to have a diet again. So I guess the whole message of this fable is don’t be greedy and the foolishness of the greedy person or the greedy individual and I found this fable really visual and really kind of like crazy and great. 

Joanna: Is that what this piece is about?

Yael: Yeah. So I have three of them that are kind of like squeezing…so part of my practise back then was… I did a lot of flags. So this fox here is actually a heraldic fox, which means that it appeared on flags or a coat of arms of different families or monarchs and I have this index, this dictionary or atlas of all these images and actually every other animal appears there, so I looked for the fox and then I found the depiction of it in the language of heraldry and then I put it on a flag. So in the pieces the flag or the fabric is trying to get in the hall, not an actual fox, that goes to the idea of representation and how we use proxies of certain things instead of the actual thing.

Joanna: I can imagine you’re a very visual person obviously, are there stories of your childhood that reflect in your pieces sometimes?

Yael: Um, not really. I don’t know if I have anything that is actually personal, I mean, these are very personal to me because I think about them and I read about them and I live them, so in that sense it’s personal, but I don’t know if I have anything from personal experience that have been translated into making these pieces. Just a way I view the world or perhaps unconsciously maybe I saw something and it creeps into my pieces, yeah. I’m not sure if I can answer that question, maybe during a hypnosis or something?

Joanna: How would you describe the style of your works?

Yael: I’m not sure how to answer that question. What do you mean, style?

Joanna: Well….an artist said that they hope that people look at their work in an abstract way. If someone was asking you what you paint how would you respond? What do you paint? Or how would you describe it to someone?

Yael: That’s actually a really hard place for me to describe because I guess they’re representational. I make my own composition and my own specific vision that I translate to a setting and then I translate it in paint. So it’s representational but of a different vein I think than I think what most people would view as representational.

Joanna: How do you go about choosing the colours for your work?

Yael: I mean some of the things I am working with are from life, like I use a lot of boxes recently so I try to make them in the colour of cardboard colour. I try to make them vibrant. I have a strong use of very saturated colours and I use sometimes fluorescent colours. Yes, I really like them to be ….To look at things I think makes you a more engaged person. So maybe that’s my goal to make people more engaged.

Joanna: What’s next? Do you have any future projects/shows/collaborations? Would you want to do a collaboration?

Yael: Yeah, I would always welcome collaboration. I have a show in the summer at a print residency I did during the last summer. 

Joanna: Where?

Yael: Here in New York city in the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts.

Joanna: Do you know what’s next for your practise?

Yael: I’m gonna continue experimenting with print. I’m going to continue doing prints and corporate prints in my paintings which I think is a very exciting thing for me to do because a huge part of my work comes from old prints or old symbols that used to be printed, so I like the way the two can converge.

Joanna: Is there a medium you’d like to try in addition, in the future? 

Yael: I’m sure there are! I’m sure I’m gonna experiment some more. I think print is where it’s going. 

Joanna: Last question, or last two. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received and what advice would you give to other artists?

Yael: The best piece of advice….

Joanna: Or is there something someone’s told you that you remember

Yael: I think just do your thing. Whatever gets you going and whatever you’re interested in, just do it, explore it, read about it, dream about it, do it in many different ways, regardless of what everybody else is saying and I think eventually if you’re doing something that you’re into and you’re passionate about, others would see it. 

Joanna: And the best advice you’ve received?

Yael: I received…. Just talk about your works, not only with artists… you know, with your family, with your friends that are not artists. Tell stories about your works and tell stories to yourself. Yeah, just have a different perspective of the work outside of your immediate community. That helps a lot I think.