To be dark isn't to be dangerous. There's a vibrancy within us that I want to convey in my work.
Rod Benson is a native Californian who grew up in San Diego and Los Angeles. After a 12 year professional basketball career that would take him all over the world, he decided to go into a different direction and began to explore his talents as a fine artist. His first show was his reaction to a moment of police brutality in Las Vegas, which provoked him to turn his pain into art. Since then, his goal has been to show that brightness and colour are integral parts of what it means to be a person of colour - that dark doesn't have to mean dangerous.
INTERVIEW WITH THE ARTIST
Q. Was there a pivotal moment that made you decide to pursue a career as an artist?
A. When I retired from basketball, I had no desire to be an artist. Some people thought that I should give it a try but I didn't find that I had any purpose. That changed one night in Las Vegas when I was out with friends in July of 2018. While walking through a club, I was unexpectedly picked up by my neck and taken to a back room where I was handcuffed and put on the floor face down. I was told that I was not allowed to leave until the club decided whether to press charges or not. Obviously there were no charges to be made but the man In charge took great pleasure in watching me suffer and only let me go after over an hour, once I started to break down and cry, begging to be released. I was supposed to stay in Vegas for a week but I changed my flight to the earliest possible, which was the next morning after. I spent that day alternating between shaking and drinking to ease my pain until I blacked out. When I got back to LA there were three enormous canvases outside my door that I had ordered while I was blacked out. So I painted a Colin Kaepernick painting and decided that I would have an art show I would call it Neon Black and that the theme would be centered around the idea that to be dark isn't to be dangerous and that there's a vibrancy within us that I wanted to convey in my work.
Q. You have had a long career in basketball and also worked as a writer, how does being an artist relate to those two professions? Is it a big contrast or is there some overlap as well?
A. I think that art connects to the other professions I've had very well. On the basketball side, there's a desire to always push to learn, to be better and to improve - there's always the idea that there's space to grow. In writing, there's the idea of laying out a concept and seeing it through, and there's also a great amount of self-starting. There's nothing more daunting than knowing you need to write something while looking at a blank page. I will say that a difference is that in art, a blank page feels like it has more possibilities and it can be much more fun in the process of creation, while in writing the satisfaction really comes at the end for me.
Q. Your work is extremely vibrant - what would you like to convey with this intense use of colour?
A. I personally really enjoy bright colours and contrast. My work is intended to not only reflect my own passion around colour, but to highlight once again that black people have this vibrance and this light inside of them and that dark doesn't mean it's dangerous, it can be vibrance. In doing so, I find a way to highlight the black experience and an entirely different way than is normally conveyed in the media.
Q. Your human subjects are generally faceless, as their facial features are obscured or become absorbed by the background. Why did you make this choice?
A. It started out as a way for me to highlight black hair. As the background and foreground are mixed, the hair, which is unobstructed, stands out a bit more. But I also mix the background and foreground to show the difference in experience and how black people internalize things when it comes to expectations from the outside world. So a lot of times, a word or an image will cross from the background of my work through the subject and it'll change size, shape, colour, or tone as it passes through as a way of showing how the black experience is different than what you expect it to be, even if it's generally similar.
Q. Could you tell us a bit about Neon Black?
A. Neon Black was my first show, again, with the idea of highlighting that dark isn't dangerous, it’s vibrant. Now it's grown into being what I describe as my entire style. It’s a style that is characterized by a few things: the first being a celebration of black hair; then the use of colour and contrast; and finally the working of the background into the foreground of the painting to show that the difference is an internal and an external feeling; and lastly, it’s an expression of the way I would describe myself:
yes I am a black man, but I am someone who feels neon on the inside.
Q. You have stated that your work deals with the subjective and objective experience of what it means to be a person of colour - how people experience their own reality versus how they are perceived by others. How does this juxtaposition find its way into your work?
A. One thing about the black community is that although we are not a monolith we have a remarkable amount of shared experience. That experience mostly comes from outsiders' expectations of what it means to be a person of colour, not from within our own community. So in my work it's not only easy for me to highlight that difference through changing the background into imagery that is part of the subject, it's also wildly important to highlight this difference to expand the perception of the community into one that reflects our actual differences. The good thing is, there's so much in the world of Pop Culture; comic books, movie references etc. that allow me to work in images that we all know and relate to but maybe didn't understand how it relates specifically to the black community or its importance to us as a whole.
Q. A lot of the symbols used in your work seem to reference the American experience and culture. Could you elaborate on how you choose them and what they signify?
A. I am someone who has consumed tons of popular culture via movies, TV, comic books, music and comedy. What I like about pop culture is that certain images and themes are immediately universal because we understand them and have internalized them by consuming them over time. I use these symbols to convey a deeper meaning that appears to be very digestible on a surface-level. I am enamored with the idea of hiding a more significant message behind something that is objectively nice to look at or to think about because I personally am a fan of art that connects with my eye as much as it connects with my heart.
Q. Some of your works feature text as well, rendered in a style that seems to reference that of graphic novels, what is their function? Is there a narrative aspect to your work?
A. Some of my favorite graphic novels including Watchmen or mangas like Scott Pilgrim take so many symbols of pop culture and make them key themes throughout the story, but their most impactful moments - the two page spreads that have the least words, that you can't take your eyes off of - are dramatic scenes with just one bubble of text. In my work specifically, the text bubble can sum up so much while still feeling relatable and light. For example, in my Paris painting the text bubble reads in French: “she's Beauty and the Beast.” This ties in the gargoyle within the subject's body, the movie reference Beauty and the Beast, and a song lyric by Big Sean. By making it in French we obscure the fact that it's got so much meaning but by making it a comic bubble it feels light even though there is so much depth within the phrase.
Q. Your pieces are very layered - the function of the different layers sometimes seems to switch or converge, when foreground and background become one or alternate in place. How did you arrive at this specific style of painting?
A. Like most artists, I found inspiration in other artists and other versions of things that I've liked in the past. I've always loved the work of street artists and comic book artists and in the last five or six years the work of guys like Matt Gondek, Greg Mike, and Pose have really inspired me to not emulate but try and find my own lane while honoring the styles that I enjoy so much. I think that work that seems palatable but every time you look at it you can find something different is difficult to achieve but very satisfying when done well.
Q. Could you describe your artistic process?
A. My inspiration for painting can start in a few different ways, but for the most part it starts from an emotional reaction to something I have seen or heard recently. In the case of works like my Venice painting, I took a photo of a friend of mine and upon editing that photo on the computer. In the process I found inspiration in details in that person's life and from my own experience with this person. This applies whether I'm drawing from a movie or even doing a landscape of a city; there's some emotional reaction I have to that place or to that person and once I lock in on what that feeling is, I go straight to illustrator and begin to work on a digital version. This is because even slight changes in colour change the feeling that I want to convey and I can explore so many colour options digitally before landing on one that becomes permanent. From there, I usually buy wood at Home Depot and put together my canvases myself and then work in a very layered process. I tell people all the time that so much of art for me is planning. Because I do the digital part first, it's almost like challenging myself to be able to recreate what I've already done on the computer screen. In doing so, I work from the deep background to the foreground almost the same way you would if you were separating layers in illustrator. I enjoy using a mix of graffiti styles and tools, from paint mops to paint brushes and paint pens to stenciling, and then finally adding the finishing touches with either resin or varnish. Throughout this process I always end up adding or subtracting elements that I thought looked good in the digital file.
Q. What would you like your work to evoke in the viewer?
A. I'm a strong believer that someone should just like the art that they're looking at. I want my art to evoke joy in the person who sees it specifically because they are visually attracted to that piece. My secondary goal is to have that person eventually find details within the painting that when looked at as a whole they might miss, but when looked at more specifically make them question what they're looking at. In answering those questions the viewer finds the emotional attachment to the work and that's always a joy to see because it always comes second. I think it's more satisfying that way.
Q. Could you describe your work in three words?
A. Vibrant - Digestible - Depth