When I arrived at Guerrero Gallery on a Wednesday afternoon to check out Ben Venom’s show, “Piece of Mind,” there was a construction crew inside taking measurements of the space. This is to be Guerrero’s last show in the space and while I don’t know who will be taking over the lease next month, judging by the current trends in real estate I assume it will be a tech start-up or a bacon emporium. Either way It will be the end of an era. Since it opened the gallery has specialized in mostly post-Mission School art, work that maintains the irreverence and love of crafts of the original Mission School artists, but with more irony and an affinity for 80s pop culture references. Ben Venom, an artist whose work embodies many of these attributes, seems a fitting parenthesis to Guerrero’s time at the space.
As someone who grew up listening to zero heavy metal, I have always enjoyed Ben Venom’s work from the perspective of a curious outsider. The more I learn about his source material the better the work gets, but it’s not required for its appreciation. (I don’t usually get the musical references without having to Google the titles.) While his work makes the audience aware of their positioning in relation to the metal subculture, it is generous in its attempt to share its worldview.
Venom’s studio practice has remained fairly consistent: he is best known for making quilts out of repurposed concert t-shirts. But the result is a visual universe in which characters are engaged in an epic battle. Many of the pieces recall vignettes from medieval artworks like the “Bayeux Tapestry,” an embroidered cloth 230 feet long that depicts the events surrounding a11th century battle in modern-day England. This association is fitting as heavy metal has long pulled from the visual and literary tropes of medieval art: the gothic ornamentation, a romanticization of the nomadic life, the knight-errant on his steed, an obsession with defending one’s honor and a simplistic moral view where the forces of good and evil are constantly at play. Oh, and lots of phallic symbolism: swords, axes, flag poles- you get the idea. Venom exploits this relationship throughout his work. For the piece “Into the Night” he presents us with a foil to the classic Arthurian hero; instead of a knight in shining armor, we find a skeleton made of black leather astride a tiger made of collaged Harley Davidson t-shirts. “Into the Sun,” its companion piece in the show, reads like a royal crest, only the mythical griffin is rendered out of heavy metal t-shirts rather than gold.
One of the hooks of Venom’s work is the way he produces unsettling imagery using traditional quilting techniques. The unexpected mix of counterculture and domesticity is especially effective with his more violent or disturbing pieces like “Creepy Crawl,” a large quilt featuring a giant, veiny eyeball. “Creep Crawl” is set on a hand-bleached denim background (think stonewashed jeans of the ‘80s), fabric and leather. While presumably an homage to the rap song “Creepy Crawl” by the artist Necro (yes, I Googled it), the strung-out eyeball reads like a symbol of paranoia. This is fitting as the lyrics of the song describe in graphic detail the brutal murders committed by the Manson family. And the music video for the song features appropriated footage of the Manson Family as well as b-movie-style reenactments their crimes. This lovingly-crafted piece is unsettling because you can almost imagine curling out up on the couch with it until you and remember it was inspired by drug-fueled violence spree.
The exhibition also features two text-only pieces which are a refreshing departure from Ben Venom’s typical iconography. “Wherever I May Roam,” an elegant, painterly piece references a Metallica song by the same name (again, yes I Googled). The background is hand-treated denim, again think ‘80’s acid-washed jeans. The gothic lettering is cut out of old, leather jackets. WIthout the specificity of the t-shirt imagery, the viewer is able to take a broader read on the piece. The combination of denim and leather conjurs a long history of American counter-culture from the Hippies to the Punks to the Goths. These two fabrics symbolize the freedom and risk that comes with breaking with tradition- a romantic notion that the country was founded on. “Wherever I May Roam,” the song, speaks about the virtues of being self-sufficient and rootless.
Call me what you will
But I’ll take my time anywhere
Free to speak my mind anywhere
And I’ll redefine anywhere
Anywhere I roam
Where I lay my head is home
The word “roam” is loaded as a part of the language of Westward Expansion and cowboy culture. It recalls the poem/folk song “Home on the Range” where the subject of the song is looking to make a new life living off the land out West:
Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam/
Where the deer and the antelope play/
There seldom is heard a discouraging word/
And the sky is not cloudy all day.
Venom includes two jean vests, or battlejackets as they are known in metal culture, embellished with chains, studs and embroidery: “Scorpio Rising” and “Diamonds are Forever,” in black and stone washed denim respectively. Like all of his pieces they are expertly crafted and they demand to be worn. However because of their gallery context, I feel compelled to consider their value as ‘art’. While both the jackets and quilt pieces are technically functional objects, the quilt pieces use their quilt-iness to their conceptual advantage. Meanwhile the jackets remain fairly literal, perhaps because of their presentation (both jackets are hung on hangers hooked on nails in the wall) or because of their context (they are the only non-quilt pieces in the show). While for me the battlejackets never transcend their garment status into something more metaphorical, perhaps they are meant instead as a sartorial tribute.
On the far wall, Venom has made a series of smaller still lifes of medieval weapons, a pair of dice, a feather and various medieval tools. Like puzzle pieces, each arrangement hints at a larger story. “Ancient Mariner” pairs an anchor and an arrow together, their points angled away from one another suggesting movement in opposite directions. This image harkens back to a time when it was required for mariners to defend their ships while anchored. But it also speaks of the internal conflict of a vagabond who has both the desire for domestic comforts and the lust for adventure. This struggle is at the root of all of Venom’s work. It seems to say that behind the theater of heavy metal is a tightly woven community of misfits all looking for a place to call home.
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-Contributed by Sarah Thibault