Artist half-jokingly describes his works as ‘artisanal memes’
Most memes are meant to be temporary. They typically exist in purely digital form, and are churned out with minimal effort, built from photos that are edited and overlaid with text. (For examples see: LeBron James angrily directing J.R. Smith on the basketball court, or conservative commenter Steven Crowder's “change my mind” photo, both of which have become fodder for the digital meme mill.)
But in Ben Lamb's skilled hands, these memes can take on new, significantly heftier life in the form of painted plywood artworks.
“I like to think of these as ‘artisanal memes,'” deadpanned Lamb, standing amid his exhibit “Worlds Collide,” which will remain on view through late September at the Gallery at the Gateway Film Center. “That's the language in which we interact with each other. People use memes, and they quote things from movies, and I guess I want to use that same vocabulary and express myself, too — in a humorous and, potentially, accidentally profound way, if I can get away with it.”
While digital memes are created quickly, Lamb can spend countless hours conceiving and executing his wooden works, which are drawn on panels, painted, finished and then cut out with a saw — a testament to the years the steady-handed Lamb has spent honing his skill with a blade while cutting state-shaped wooden coasters for sale. (The craft is also in his blood; both Lamb's father and grandfather were woodworkers.)
In “Worlds Collide,” Lamb explores the common ground between George Lucas' “The Empire Strikes Back” and Stanley Kubrick's “The Shining,” crafting a series of pieces in which the characters from each universe interact.
“This one sums it up,” said Lamb, pointing to one work in which several characters from each film square off. “There's this otherworldly spirit — the Force, the Shining — and it possesses a small child. This ‘force' can be used for either good or bad, and each of these kids has a father who went to the bad side of it, and each has an elderly acolyte that helps them understand and learn how to harness this power, as it were.”
More than a simple cultural mashup, Lamb's pieces uncover new elements in whatever it is he happens to be exploring, whether it be a humorous aspect, surrealist underpinnings or even political commentary. (A handful of the paintings on display at GFC exist outside the world of the main exhibit, including one of Harrison Ford's Han Solo dressed in Stormtrooper armor and positioned above the header “Stolen Valor.”)
“My whole thing, especially in this group, is that there's a thing in it that is not on its surface,” Lamb said. “You have to take what's there, and take the words and the visual and maybe a little bit of pop culture knowledge, and then there's a third element, which is ‘the piece,' if that makes sense. It's a little game for you to solve.”
Several of the works are also influenced by the character of the wood itself. A dark knot forms the belly button on “Bubba Fett” (not a typo), while Tommy Lee Jones' face is naturally complimented by the graining. (“He already looks like he's carved out of wood,” Lamb joked.)
“It's not so much like I'm the wood whisperer and I look at it like, ‘What's in you?'” cracked Lamb, who has a second exhibit, “Banal Retentive,” opening at St. James Tavern in Italian Village on Saturday, Sept. 1. “I would like to do that, though. Maybe if I had enough mushrooms.”