Investigating the ‘Other’: Ben Edge ‘FOLK RENAISSANCE’ at CNB Gallery

Camden-based artist Ben Edge talked to us last week about his debut solo exhibition, Folk Renaissance – an ode to the detail and craft often found in Folk and Naive Art as well as the traditions of religious Renaissance painting – which opens March 13th at CNB Gallery in Shoreditch.

Edge’s paintings channel Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s allusion that “Man can stand anything except a succession of ordinary days.” By doing so, Edge’s work investigates and celebrates the ‘other’, presenting the viewer with a critical and psychological insight into the human story.

14) The life of Peary
‘The Life of Peary’ | Courtesy of the Artist and CNB Gallery.

Impulsive, daring and intimate, his work champions the illicit; portraying people who live beyond accepted social and cultural norms, whether they are artists, arctic explorers, circus performers or musicians. By reversing the belief that out of folklore comes contemporary culture, Edge not only turns unsung heroes into icons, but also transforms the orthodox portrait into a poetic metaphor for the friability of life.

His Stalwart adherence to the nuances of traditional portraiture, coupled with his devotion to perfectionism is evident through his tighter style of painting which gives a clean and precise feel to the portraits, enabling them to retain their power and authenticity.

Edge stands alone in his ability to go beyond the superficial. He pays homage to the biography of his subjects, carrying out exhaustive research before choosing scenes and events from the narrative he is to create upon drawing. His interest in biographical portraits stems from remarkable stories he was told as a child. His transmogrification of the experiences his family – and grandfather in particular – told him of inspired people who lived an eclectic existence, has culminated in one of his paintings, ‘The Animal Handler’ being shortlisted and exhibited at The National Portrait Gallery as part of the BP Portrait Award in 2009.

Whilst consciously aware of everyday surroundings while creating his paintings, Edge’s work exists on two levels: it can be considered formally, for the sheer quality of its creation, but can also be regarded thematically, for the subject matter. Edge has thus chosen an apt title for the show with folk meaning ‘ordinary people’ and renaissance meaning ‘a revival of a renewed interest in something’. His exhibition meritoriously gives a new life to people he is painting so that their story may live vicariously through his brushwork.

21) Mabel Stark
‘Mabel Stark’ | Courtesy of the Artist and CNB Gallery.

Franzi Gabbert: In 2009 you were awarded with the BP Portrait Award for ‘The animal Handler’, how has this influenced your career?

Ben EdgeI didn’t actually win the award but was shortlisted and exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery. It was an honour to be selected and I would also say that this has allowed me to be taken a little more seriously as an artist than I was before.  

FG: What art do you most identify with?

BEI have always been drawn to Folk, Naive and Outsider art. There is an obsessional quality behind it and a necessity to create and that is how I feel about my work. 

FG: What do you try to communicate with your art?

BE: My work is really about people and how we all find our own individual ways of coping and responding to the world around us.

FG: Your art is about biographies and peoples stories. What is your strongest memory of your childhood?

BEOne of my strongest memories would be from my early childhood when I would spend my summers and weekends at a caravan park in Normans Bay, near Hastings. A lot of my family also had caravans down there as well. My grandfather would chase me and my cousins and siblings with a big walking stick and hook our legs as we were running. We would also all pile into the back of his van that was full of all sorts of tools and things that he had collected. Without any seat belts on he would drive full speed and steer the car left and right going all over the road and we would all fly all over the back with all his things crashing all around us. It was great fun. 

25) Morning catch
‘Morning Catch’ | Courtesy of the Artist and CNB Gallery.

FG: How did your interest in Biographies begin?

BEI think it was probably as a result of these early experiences and my family in general. I was surrounded by a lot of interesting people and they had a certain kind of attitude and outlook. It was about doing things your own way and living with passion and this is something that I see in the subjects I paint. 

FG: You let us viewers have a insight into unique human stories when looking at your paintings. What do these stories mean to you?

BEI see each of my paintings as individual stories but collectively part of a bigger picture that says something about us all. I think we all live in our own little worlds and by entering other peoples I think we learn something about ourselves. 

FG: How is your personality reflected in your work?

BE: Well I am self-proclaimed perfectionist and like to dress smart. I think this is mirrored in the clean and precise style that I paint. I think it is important as an artist not to fight against your personality and let your personality traits inform your work. 

FG: Do you have creative patterns, routines or rituals? If so, what are these?

BEYeah I generally work long hours getting up relatively early. I then have a walk and explore new areas of London and return home and work from my flat so it feels like I am travelling somewhere else. I also have to balance my practice around working regular jobs when I need to get some money in. Recently I was working as a laborer with a friend of mine but when I do work I only ever agree to four days a week to ensure I have a day for my art. I have always kept to that and never worked a 5-day week. I also paint most evenings and weekends and whenever I can really. 

FG: Can you tell us about the process of making your work?

BE: The research side is constant. I am always reading and visiting relevant places and my ideas are born out of this. I have a large collection of books that I am always adding to. I don’t always read the books I buy straight away but I always have a backlog that I am working through. Once I have an idea I start collecting imagery and piecing it together into a composition. Then I make the painting. It’s also important to me to always be a step ahead and be planning the next piece before I begin the one I am about to work on.

FG: You will have your first solo exhibition at CNB Gallery from the 14th of March. Can you tell us a bit about your series Folk Renaissance?

BE: The Folk Renaissance series includes paintings of Outsider artists, Musicians, Circus Performers, Arctic explorers, fighters and also of myself. With a selection of the paintings there will also be biographical information in the form of text to accompany the work. With the title of the exhibition I wanted to come up with something that is connected with the fact that my work gives a new life to the story of the person I am depicting and with Folk meaning ‘ordinary people’ and renaissance ‘a revival of a renewed interested in something’ this for me does that. I hope that people coming to the show will not only enjoy looking at my paintings but also enjoy the backstories behind them as much as I do.

– Franzi Gabbert

Ben Edge: Folk Renaissance will be on view at CNB gallery from 14 March – 14 April, 2017; 32 Rivington Street, EC2A 3LX; 11AM – 6PM daily; Admission: FREE

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