Yael Ben-Simon

Artist Interview

July 18, 2019
Yael Ben-Simon is an Israeli artist that works and lives in Brooklyn NY. Her works explore the relationship between propaganda, identity, magic and symbol making through painting.

Hello Yael, can you tell us a bit about yourself? What is your journey like moving from Israel to Chicago, and now New York?

Hey! I was born and raised in Israel and after getting my undergraduate degree from Bezalel school of art in Jerusalem I moved to Chicago to pursue my graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute Chicago. My partner and I moved to New York City two years ago. Obviously, my somewhat nomadic life is constantly informing my art as well as my life (as if you can separate the two!) I am constantly reflecting on themes of home, culture and strangeness. I feel like there is always part of me that is here and the other somewhere completely different. I take that to the extreme in my work - working with old medieval and renaissance symbols of power that have no direct connection to my immediate components of my identity.

What is the main concept behind in your flag series?

The flag series evolved after working with and incorporating old regal patterns that are now considered tacky. At some point I felt frustrated with them because they were too generic so I started searching for a vocabulary of images that would offer more meaning.

Luckily for me, I was already traveling in these worlds of visual language of grandeur. So I ended up finding a well of incredibly intricate and rich heraldic symbols that represented an entire ruling class from the medieval times onwards. Timing-wise, it was around the same moment the world started flirting with old autocratic notions again and the flags for me represented simultaneous disgust and fascination with the idea of a strong nation state. So, I regard the flags as a magician’s prop – meant to lure you so he can play a trick on your brain, as indeed flags are capable of doing. I’ve stuck to these old heraldic flags because, as a painter, they are a treat to work with. Every animal, real or fantastic, have been enlisted to represent a monarch, family or a clan. These animals also appear in myriad different positions so the possibilities are literally endless. Conceptually, whereas contemporary flags are predominantly abstract, all down to colors and geometric shapes, these flags and coats of arms present a more crude relationship with representation that I wish to explore. I’m really into symbolism and understanding the origins of a symbol. That is why I am drawn to these flags – I wish to follow the line that leads from abstract values such as valor, courage and pride to tigers, eagles and lions.  

As for the paintings, the flags are not hoisted or presented in a ceremonial fashion; instead they are crumpled and folded – hiding some of their features so the end result is skewed and new entities that are quite comical. It is my attempt of poking fun at how sinister those agents of machismo are. The setting is always somewhat unclear- somewhere between a cyberspace and a forgotten storage area where things pile up in oblivion. I like to think that they ultimately point toward failure, whether failure of symbolism or of power.

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Fabrics and patterns are some of the recurring motifs in your works, how did that come about?

I think of fabrics as instruments of concealing and revealing, and as such they are a great symbol for truth and truth seeking. They also possess a special place in history of art, where artists would sometimes frivolously plant them in their paintings to increase theatricality and to show off their painterly skills. By singling them out, they are the heroes in my paintings and therefore almost acquire human qualities (and indeed, they are proxies for people and nations in politics). The patterns are added to adorn the barrier or the screen that prevents us access to light. I find this to be a quite effective mechanism to hide injustice and I like how visual this metaphor is. The beautification and therefor legitimization of oppression is something I keep thinking of in that regard.

We would like to know more about your paintings Europe and Asia, what was on your mind when you were making them? Are there any connections between them?

Sure, they are both taken from Iconologia, a 17th century Italian emblem book that has hundreds of personifications of abstract themes and places. Animals and objects that symbolically support these ideas accompany every figure in it. I started working with images from this book this past year and still very much in love with it. The book has four figures for four continents, and I have been working with all of them in some way or another in my paintings.

The continents are depicted as female figures, as was traditional back then. Created in Europe, it is pretty obvious that they epitomize the European psyche and self-image, whether by depicting Europe as a queen and a master, or by exoticizing the rest.  I am riveted by these images because they illuminate a very basic human condition – the need to tell ourselves stories about who we are, and who the others are (which is the other side of the coin). It is a great way to talk about identity and how contrived and shallow the conversation about it nowadays can be. I use those images as a background on top of which I place various objects and fabrics, some random and some are not, as a way to suggest a more layered model of identity that is sometimes founded on complete fables. I don’t mean to celebrate the original images of Africa and Asia as they are extreme ethnocentric caricatures just as I am not celebrating the flags, and indeed in both cases they are either covered or transformed. However, in both, I feel there is something for me to explore.

Asia, 2018

Africa, 2019

Europe, 2019

Do you have any bad habits, do they effect your studio practice?

I am extremely slow, which is a nice way to say that I spend too much time on social media and watching the news while in the studio. I am distracted easily. Because my paintings are layered, I have to spend lots of time waiting for the paint to dry which encourages this distraction.

Have you seen/read/heard anything interesting lately that you would like to share?

The last thing I read that really blew my mind was a Tiepolo biography by Roberto Calasso, named Tiepolo Pink. It is not a standard biography in terms of telling a simple story but rather exhilarating reflections on his artwork and the period he worked in. I envy what this writer can do with words; they almost cast a spell on you. I highly recommend this book!

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Can you describe your relationship with your work?

I am traveller by heart and I pick up stuff wherever I go. I hope my work reflects that.  Since I grew up in a culture that was still struggling to define itself, I embrace influences wholeheartedly. I am enamored with ubiquitous and classic imagery, one that almost belongs to everybody (or nobody). In my work I try to tarnish it and thus make singular what is generic.

Anything else we should know about you and your work?

Just that I make models for most of my paintings in a 3d animation program. After they’re done, I use them as reference for my paintings.

More of Yael Ben-Simon: yaelbensimon.com