Blenkm Highben & Friends embrace the creative possibility of destruction

‘This Could Be the Last Time,’ a group show opening at the Vanderelli Room on Friday, centers around an ongoing conversation between Davey Highben and Martin Blenkinsopp

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Blenkm Highben

Davey Highben already labeled his forthcoming show with Martin Blenkinsopp at the Vanderelli Room a failure.

In the early stages of planning, Highben envisioned constructing a giant maze that attendees would have to navigate, its walls jammed with the hundreds of pieces on which he and Blenkinsopp collaborated under the name Blenkm Highben. He also dreamed of constructing a life-size cardboard boat somewhere within the space.

“But then as time came and went, it was like, ‘I don’t have time for this. I don’t have time for that,’” Highben said during an early October interview at the gallery alongside Blenkinsopp, where the two were working feverishly to complete “This Could Be the Last Time,” which is credited to Blenkm Highben & Friends and opens on Friday, Oct. 8. “As far as the way I wanted to present it, epic failure. Epic failure.”

At the same time, Highben said he was still determined to “raise the bar” in terms of local exhibitions, so for the last couple of weeks he and Blenkinsopp have been working virtually around the clock at the Vanderelli Room to complete and hang more than 200 works that are largely concentrated on the north wall of the Franklinton gallery (the south wall and adjoining rooms will be taken up by invited guests).

“Not done. Very close. Not done. Maybe done? Not done. Very close,” Highben said, pointing to a handful of paintings that were at least nearing completion, including one piece painted on paper that had become partially detached from the wall after it was hung, presenting a new opportunity for the artists. “I liked the way it fell, so I tacked it, and now I have to start painting the other side.”

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This sense of chaos and a willingness to roll with the punches is baked into the long collaborative relationship between Highben and Blenkinsopp, who have been friends since they first met in California in the 1990s and who have functioned as an artistic tag team since early 2019. For this new exhibit, which builds on the ideas the two first displayed in a 2019 show at Two Truths, Highben and Blenkinsopp again traded canvases back and forth, with one advancing or erasing ideas painted by the other, allowing the works to evolve in unexpected ways as the conversation continued.

“With this work, we were never together, and there was no communication about it,” Highben said of the pieces, which are painted on everything from skateboard decks to reclaimed wood and discarded cardboard boxes. “There are no rules, no boundaries. Don’t be too attached.”

The exhibit is meant to both overwhelm and engage, with the works hung closely together in an almost happenstance manner that suggests universal chaos. On closer inspection, though, there’s a sense of order that begins to emerge, with a number of the pieces containing repeated patterns and characters, which Highben traced in part to a lingering fascination with Polish-born French-American mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot.

“Most people, when they go to galleries, they don’t look at the art. They peruse the art. They don’t get up here and realize, ‘Oh, that’s wood on cardboard on panel on panel on paper.’ Most people aren’t going to pick up on the subtleties,” Highben said. “But if you’re overwhelmed, you’re going to want to take the time to gather yourself, and then you’re going to see something that you like, whether in our work or someone else’s, and something else is going [to emerge].”

Art by Davey Highben and Martin Blenkinsopp at the Vanderelli Room

Though built on an ongoing conversation between the two, the exhibit engages the larger outside world, addressing everything from the ongoing pandemic to the social justice protests that sprung up globally in the weeks and months following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. “I think this is a response to COVID, to the Black lives matter movement, police brutality, the anti-vaxxers, the flat earthers, clout chasers,” Highben said. 

To illustrate his point, Highben directed my attention to a small painting of former president Donald Trump caught mid-lie, his visage overlain with a mask of a silver-tongued devil. “It wasn’t intentional, but we’re watching the news, we’re dealing with this stuff,” Highben said. “And the more you look at it, and the more you watch the news, the more you’re in your head, and the more it’s like, ‘That’s what this is. I didn’t know what I was making, but that’s what it is.’

“But is that the mind of a lunatic, a schizophrenic just looking for meaning in everything? Or is it my subconscious manifesting itself and throwing it up there on paper, wood and canvas? I don’t know. Do I want to know? No.”

Not all of the guest artists invited to display alongside the two have been on board with the pair’s relentlessly collaborative approach. In fact, one unnamed muralist became so incensed when Blenkinsopp painted over a part of their piece on the outside of the building that they returned at night and splashed paint all over the wall in an attempt to destroy the work. Rather than getting angry, however, Highben embraced the potential unlocked by the vandal, a response he traced in part to the nature of the work he’s been doing with Blenkinsopp for the better part of two years, which requires a willingness to embrace the sense of possibility brought about by your best-laid plans being absolutely wrecked.

“I guess ultimately what I’m trying to say is that [this muralist’s] splashes and the patterns they made and just the buff over the mess just gave me a million more ideas,” Highben said. “Instead of being angry, just look at the possibilities. It’s like a meteor hitting earth and hitting reset. Once you get through the shock and awe, if you will, everything is new, and the possibilities are endless.”