Sphinxes, chimaeras, dragons and cowgirls – the women in Heather Benjamin’s artwork are mythical and riddled with symbolism. Using different shapes and forms, the New York artist’s avatars represent her emotional landscape and relationship with her body. The result? An array of brutally honest visual representations of the many complex sides of sex, womanhood and physicality – at times difficult to digest, but all undeniably real.
Starting her journey as an artist drawing Sailor Moon fanart for her peers while in school, Heather went on to grow up in the gigs and community spaces of the New York punk scene. Inevitably, this introduced her to the practice of zine-making and self-printing as a way to disseminate information cheaply and on her own terms.
Having spent years working on her own photocopied art zines discussing sex and personal relationships, as well as publishing an array of books, Heather has now expanded her practice to bigger, one-of-a-kind drawings. The artist vouches to never leave self-publishing behind, but she perceives this new format as relatively less restrictive – one that allows her to frame the narrative between the drawings within the larger context of a gallery space, rather than within a booklet that inevitably dictates a beginning and an end.
Now, ahead of the opening of her first Los Angeles exhibition, Cowgirl Dental Floss, we talk self-love, sex and going beyond Insta-friendly body positivity.
Your work is very autobiographical – what does it feel like to deal with a lot of personal journeys through a relatively public medium?
It’s always been such a natural impulse for me to make very personal work, and it does help me. I don’t even know if putting it out there helps, but making the work definitely does.
Only in the last couple of years, since I started having more visibility than before, did I realise that I’m projecting a really intense version of myself. It’s okay, though, because I’m not playing around in my work. That is the way I feel, and I am a blunt person by nature. I’ve always been someone that tells people too much information within five minutes of meeting them. My work is an extension of myself in that way. All my cards are on the table: this is what I’m going through, here’s how I feel.
The larger of an audience I have, the weirder it’s going to get that I am showing all this intimate stuff, it can feel really public at times. But I’m not going to stop doing it. If my personal work resonates and makes people feel less alone and more understood, that’s what I live for. It bounces back and makes your experience seem less isolating.
It’s interesting because your work, which mixes the grotesque with sexuality quite often, is a lot more comfortable for me to see than say, the usual over-simplified “love yourself” version of sex positivity.
There’s a lot of sex-positive “love your body” artwork, especially on Instagram. I think it’s awesome, and it’s great that there’s a platform for that, that there’s an audience for it and that that type of work it’s supported. But it doesn’t resonate with me – it’s too one-dimensional for how complicated I feel about stuff. I feel gross and confused and angry at my body a lot of the time. I think I personally benefit more from seeing complicated representations of what it’s like to inhabit a body, since that’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about and feeling.
Making explicit, graphic artwork – and especially when women make it – seems more accepted right now that it has been in the past. I’m sure it’s obvious through my work, but I have a really complicated relationship with self-perception, my body, sex and intimacy. That’s why I’m making the work I do – because I’m struggling with that and trying to work through it. I hope that by putting out work about a more complicated experience of being in a human body, that can resonate with other people who also have a very multifaceted relationship with themselves, and maybe make that experience feel less isolating.
A lot of the women in your work are almost mythical – I was wondering if there’s any particular mythical story that you particularly love that informs that?
There are so many! A lot of the time it’s not about a specific story, but rather about my gut feeling on representing my protagonist, which is basically always an avatar for some facet of my experience. When I was drawing the sphinxes for a long time, it had so much to do with this silent, strong and regal gatekeeping presence. After that, I switched to drawing the dogs, and that was about feeling feral, but also wanting to be taken care of but not necessarily need that. With the Cowgirls, it’s been about coming back to a human form, but wearing and wielding the symbolism instead of completely being it.
I do read a lot – I’ll often fall into internet hole of like reading about a sphynx from this side of the world, then a similar goddess from the other side. The ones who like, decapitate and triumph over the evil dudes are always the best.
The current work you’re making seems a lot lighter than your previous work – how do you feel it represents the journey you’re in currently?
All my phases of work really run parallel to what’s going on in my life, what I’m thinking about, what I’m going through because that’s why I make work. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the work is “lighter” now, because it’s not like I’m feeling great now. I’m just working through things in a different way than I did when I was younger. Maybe with a bit less severity, because that feels less productive to me than it did before.
Now, I’m trying to figure out exactly who I am, and what direction I’m going in. I think drawing non-human forms had a lot to do with not feeling in touch with my body – and I think starting to draw the human form again had to do with trying to relate to myself more viscerally in the real world again. I think sometimes I’m drawing what’s already going on in my mind, what already exists, but at other times I feel like I’m trying to guide myself somewhere by drawing, manifest something.
You’ve worked independently for a very long time – what is your advice for someone who might be doubting themselves?
I think that the most important thing is to not think too much about how people are going to receive your work. I know it’s really hard, and I struggle with that too, but I try to remember how I felt when I was younger – less concerned – and embody that now. When I was first starting out, I would make drawings on printer paper, photocopy them and hang them up anywhere I thought people might see them, or go up to people I admired at book fairs and give them my zines all the time – and I still do. Just putting yourself out there is good.
My advice is just to make the work that you feel good about, put it out there in as many ways as you can. Be confident that it’s going to resonate with somebody, somewhere, and put it out there. Not to oversimplify it, but it is that simple: you just need to go for it.
Cowgirl Dental Floss is open until the April 21 at These Days gallery in Los Angeles.
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