Show Ponies, Solo Catalogue Statement, 2009

My first encounter with artist Benjamin Werner was over a few drinks in a back alley bar in Tokyo. The choice of rendezvous point confirmed all I had heard about Werner the man; he was gregarious and charming and appeared to know everyone in the place; from the staff, to the businessmen, to the pretty girls; all eager to be in his company. It was when ordering our fifth round of drinks that I really got a taste of Benjamin the ‘Aussie’ larrikin. As he reached for a cigarette lighter I noticed a rather deep scar carved into his left forearm, the word KELLY embossed above the surface in capital letters. I enquired as to its meaning, to which Werner responded, “I was in the Kelly Gang when I was younger.” I paused to consider this, trying to decide whether he could have actually been a member of some offshoot of the infamous ‘Kelly Gang’, but as I looked up to respond, with a cheeky smile and a little wink he said “never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn” before laughing and lighting his cigarette. It was a line I had heard many times back at home, a singularly Australian expression most recently made famous by Eric Bana whilst playing the role of Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read in the movie Chopper. This was the beginning of a conversation about the artist as a young man that gave me an insight into how his practice had evolved to produce Show Ponies.

Chopper Oil on canvas 1800 x 1200mm 2008/2009

There is a larrikin Australian attitude that is so familiar to the worksites Benjamin spent his youth labouring at for his stepdad or dad (both bricklayers) with their blue heelers in tow; or with his biker uncle’s mates he spent time with growing up. Benjamin talks of the oft-threatened visit to ‘Chuckles Knuckles’ house by his father, a place where the infamous Mr. Knuckles would ‘punch your face in through the back of your head.’ Benjamin would speak in hushed tones of this in the school playground, scaring the other children with the prospect of this boogey-man-like character.

His rebellious and artistic side emerged early on; Benjamin had a mohawk at age 13, left school in order to work at 14, and got his first tattoo by 15; which became a birthday ritual for the next ten years. His best friend around this time, Danny, had half-sleeve tattoos of skulls and bikers and a large image of Ned Kelly with guns blazing covering half his back, all by the age of 14. To the chagrin of Benjamin’s mother, it was Danny who took the young artist on Christmas Eve to get his first tattoo.

He was different things to different people, with a variety of names reflecting this, Banjo to his auntie, and Neb – Ben backwards – to the boys. The only books he had read before he went to art school were by the likes of Chopper, being the popular style of reading material that circulated amongst his friends and family; tales of prisoners convicted for smuggling heroin or bikie wars on Mother’s Day.

Images of Chopper Read and Ned Kelly were both painted for his last solo exhibition in 2008, an exhibition based on various Facebook profiles. This imagery that was so familiar to Benjamin’s youth, the underworld with a larrikin twist, had many of his contemporaries wondering when it would finally get a decent airing in his practice, and it has arrived here with the Show Ponies exhibition.

The colloquial term ‘show pony’ refers to a person who is superficially impressive, and is often used when deriding people who ‘big-note’ themselves or show off. This allusion to self aggrandisement is a fitting title for this show. An independent artist who is unrepresented by galleries, Werner has by definition become somewhat of a ‘show pony,’ having to reinvent the ways in which he self-promotes each new body of work he creates, with different publications and approaches each time. For his Facebook exhibition, Werner self-published an accompanying book called The Facebook featuring images from the show. When reading the paper at smoko; from similar job sites to those Benjamin had worked at previously; friends regularly notify him by text message after seeing yet another picture of him in the social pages or at another opening, and he often attracts a nudge and the line “You’re such a fucking show pony, Werner” from the same larrikin mates over a beer at The Brewers Arms.

In the piece “Britney & Paris – Red Carpet Incident”, Werner has incorporated the much publicised 2008 gossip magazine imagery displaying Britney Spears exiting Paris Hilton’s vehicle minus her panties, a seemingly considered piece of self promotion and exposure that holds to the tenet ‘any publicity is good publicity.’ He has reworked this image in “Ned and Chopper – Red Carpet Incident” with his usual large brush wet on wet technique forcing us to re-evaluate the image by placing it alongside a reproduction with the protagonists changed to Ned Kelly and Chopper Read. In this representation, Kelly is pants free; exposed on the red carpet, on the way to an after party with Chopper, two of the ‘true blue’ Aussie self promoters teamed up in the ideal publicity seeking situation.

Britney and Paris, Red Carpet Incident Oil on canvas 1200 x 1800mm 2009
Two of the more predominant themes within Show Ponies are those of infamy and an iconic status, with Werner likening aspects of himself to his painted parade of infamous and iconic characters and people. One of the most Australian of characters and the embodiment of the infamous outlaw, Mad Max appears here in “Mad Max with Blue Heeler”, wearing the helmet of Ned Kelly. Mad Max is commonly viewed as an outlaw akin to Kelly, yet it seems to be often forgotten that the Mad Max character was on the side of the law. The blurring of the thin blue line is something that Werner has referenced in this and previous work, drawing on experiences throughout his life viewing people who dance around this line frequently.

Mad Max Kelly Oil on canvas 1800 x 1200mm 2008/2009

This distorted line is also evident along with that humorous Aussie way of looking at things in the work, “Buckets with Ned”, in which Ned Kelly smokes marijuana through an altered soft drink bottle out of his upturned helmet. This ‘bucket bong,’ often seen in kitchens and laundries at house parties, has experienced various depictions in Australian contemporary culture. A multitude of names have arisen for this type of smoking device with one of the more popular being the ‘bucket billy,’ a reference to the boiling pot immortalised in the iconic Australian song Waltzing Matilda. The artist joins Kelly in the painting for this most Australian of illicit experiences.

Continuing with the Kelly theme the work “Up to Scratch” depicts Werner himself as the bare knuckled Ned Kelly, the modesty of Kelly’s time forgotten; with his uncovered chest placing his tattoos on show, his fists raised, standing at the mark scratched in the dirt, ready to fight. Benjamin states that this is a reference to the struggles of the young Australian artist to keep returning to the line in the dirt, keep fighting on and producing work when you‘ve been knocked down in the past. The fact that his figure is standing over the line speaks to an artist’s need to step over lines and shock people in order to get noticed. I registered a fresh scar under his right eye while admiring the new works for this show and I’m convinced this has influenced this latest self portrait. Like Kelly himself, it’s been said that Werner ‘copped a good one’ before a scratch had time to be etched in the ground.

Up To Scratch, Self Portrait as Ned Kelly Oil on canvas 1800 x 1200mm 2009

Show Ponies also includes museum style display cases containing various hair samples and other objet d’art – real and fictitious – that are connected to each of the painted works and reference the ever growing phenomenon of celebrity related collections.

Artists paintbrushes constructed of Werner’s previously used brushes and human and canine hair are embossed with the hair type, year and country of origin. These include “Plait ‘O’ Nine Tails” made with Benjamin’s own cut off plait, or the green and gold Kelly Series brushes made of Ned’s beard.

Ned Kelly Series, Artist Paintbrush
Ned Kelly Series, Artist Paintbrush

A goatee beard and pony tail gifted by his ‘china plate’* Troy, both cut off for a court appearance in 1981 and reserved for all of these years in a drawer, form the “Troy Series Brushes”.

Troy Series, Artist Paintbrush
Troy Series, Artist Paintbrush

Britney’s pubic hair features in the “Britney Series Brushes” which come with their very own “Heart Shaped Box™”, a display container emblazoned with the name BRITNEY in glitter pink with an opening on each side for the brushes to be inserted, looking just like an arrow though the heart. This sits alongside “The Chopper Brand Earaser™”, a large matchbox printed with Chopper’s image and the infamous quote “Don’t just hack at it” with a moulded rubber ear-shaped artists eraser that parodies both Chopper getting his ears hacked off in prison and his chosen career path eliminating ‘problems.’

Show Ponies marks a new point in Werner’s career. There is a consideration and playfulness in these works that demonstrates a sharp mind operating behind the charming and affable man. Show Ponies leads the viewer through a tale of infamy, humour and an Australian sensibility that has us wondering what will come next from this refreshing talent.

*China plate being Cockney rhyming slang for a mate.

Arthur Ryder