Continuing through August 5, 2023
Emerging artist Ben Ashton is known for darkly satirical figurative paintings inspired by historic portraits in the Grand Manner and Neoclassical styles. In past bodies of work, Ashton’s figures are melted and stretched, and occasionally seem self-aware of — even pained by — their distortion. In “Before A Fall,” the panels on which Ashton has rendered his figures become part of the illusion. The images are even more attention-grabbing as a result.
Ashton earlier targeted heads and faces for distortion, which allowed for a general inquiry into self-representation and identity, the emotive power of the face, and the vanity of courtly portraits. This body of work is no different, but this time, embedded in the more abrupt severing of eyes from jaws is a cheekier, class-conscious critique. The show’s title comes from the old Biblical adage “Pride Cometh Before a Fall,” and the largest portrait in the show seems especially referential to France’s ancien régime. The end of that regime saw a lot of heads roll.
Ashton and his partner are recurring models in these scenes, and in the past the artist has created and worn the costumes seen in the portraiture. Preparation for the larger works in his new show also required constructing panel surfaces to complete the effect of the portraits being sundered, but connected by thin bands of color.
In contrast with these sharp, linear voids, the figures and backgrounds are very softly rendered. Things are luminous, even a little blurry — a departure from the sometimes rugged brushwork in the backgrounds of works by Gainsborough for example, or the showy crispness of Jacques-Louis David. Ashton simplifies and softens while also chopping the bodies into neat chunks, free of gore.
Along with these larger, eccentric panels, Ashton exhibits smaller oil-on-paper works. These delicately retain some of the details that he blurs in the larger paintings, and also revisit the distortion effects of earlier works: Cyan-Magenta-Yellow phantoms split around a body; the eye-line of a head smudged into oblivion; a face pixelated beyond recognition. These are digital effects rendered with analog tools, and from a technical perspective alone, it’s impressive.
Roq La Rue is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. For most of its existence, beyond the Lowbrow-Highbrow and Pop Surrealist idioms that founder Kirsten Anderson has championed, the gallery has valued a sense of humor and narrative skill that is much more mainstream today than when Roq Le Rue was founded. Anderson’s program emphasizes rigorous technique, especially in painting, and has not been shy about addressing emerging technology, including Artificial Intelligence Art. As an example, last month’s show, Jason Pucinelli’s “Mimic,” was a timely retort to AI-generated images.
Which is to say that Ben Ashton’s work is quite at home here, in a tech town like Seattle. Digital imagery is a lingua franca, even if tech workers as a whole have not really caught the art collecting bug. “Before a Fall” also feels timely at a moment when labor movements are picking up steam alongside a striking creative class. Discontent with a predatory plutocracy seems ready to boil over, and questions loom whether the tech industry has begun to make much of its workforce obsolete through AI. Some sly “off with their heads” imagery seems perfect for the present and the tumultuous years ahead. Ashton makes it just pretty enough to take some edge off of the dread.