It’s Sunday afternoon and I am heading to Lewisham Arthouse. It’s a beautiful building. I get a bit sentimental about the massive front doors and stony staircase which somehow remind me of the doors and oversized staircases in Italian apartment blocks. But I am in South London, not Southern Italy and it’s getting chilly.
It’s busy inside and I make my way through the circuit of studios and head straight for the stairs that take you down into the bowels of the building where there is a little jewel of a studio to be found: Ben Varney’s. He is in the basement. (I can’t help but think of Jung and our ‘psychic basement’ – Where the really interesting, socially unacceptable stuff is hidden).
I make my way past the sign that tells me to mind my head and emerge from the dark stairwell into an installation, I pass through there and into a pool of light with a darkly clad figure lurking in the hallway. The dark figure turns to reveal Ben’s bright eyes and smile greeting me. I am in front of an open door that reveals a tiny studio with an oil painting and some beautiful watercolours by Ben hanging on the walls. I have seen his watercolour work before and these appear qualitatively different. I find out he has mixed these watercolours himself (gum arabic and pigment).
One of the things I like about Ben’s work is the sense of someone really working to find things out. There is no pretence here or self consciousness and no sense of ego. I get the impression that this is a person who takes his time. This is a place of discovery and dedication. It is smaller than any other studio in the Arthouse but it has a sense of richness and sincerity that is hard to come by. Ben leans over with a big book and says, ‘Here!’. It’s The Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Apparently it is now mine! This is another thing about Ben I am reminded about – He is very generous. This comes across in his work and in how he talks with people about art – Acknowledging the alienation many may feel. He is not aiming to baffle and strikes up good conversations with visitors.
On a shelf stands a stack of books and below there’s a table full of bits and bobs- research, tea cups, a CD, beside which perches a lovely little etching.
There is a sense in the works on the walls of the exploration of the physical, of matter and it’s manifestation but also of the psychological subtelties, the many clues in a persons face and something of the metaphysical. The faces emerge from ‘nothing’ – the blank page – but the emerging form tells us of the existence of the other without it needing to be described in concrete terms. The watercolours and oil painting seem to be bringing something to life out of a primordial soup. It would be easy to say this – and I’ve heard it before – ‘you draw like a sculptor’. Giacommetti may also spring to mind. For me, Ben’s works seem to hover between various states, finely balanced between the fleshy, heavy stuff of matter he seems to be wrestling with and the spiritual (can’t use that word in Artworld today apparently).
As I turn to go out I see another of Ben’s masks made from chicken wire, Papier-mâché and gesso hanging on the door. Heading back into the corridor I follow the long line of masks that must be paused at and experienced. These continue on to another small room on the right. In this room at the end lurks another surprise: Three works by Ben. Heads/faces, Oil and gesso, perched on a table that has seen a lot of use. This is another unassuming room, tucked away for only the curious to find. I think you should visit these rooms in the basement of the Lewisham Arthouse because -as the song once said- the basement is where it’s at!– EC, 2012
Ben Varney’s Open Studio
All work by Ben Varney