artbeat (2006-20)

Ben Lindquist’s art juxtaposes the violent with the oblivious

CAMPING TRIP FROM HELL: Nature 1, Mankind 0.

Guns ’n’ Posies

by Leslie Wylie

There are two Ben Lindquists in the room.

One resembles your average twenty-something art-school grad, dressed down in jeans and sneakers. He clutches a beer bottle with one hand and gestures animatedly with the other, talking oil paint with a friend.

The other is decked out in camouflage hunting gear and a sheepskin-lined hat with giant earflaps. He stares forward coldly through metallic-blue eyes, and it’s clear that he’s in the market to put a bullet-hole through something furry.

Art-school Lindquist turns toward Shoot-’em-up Lindquist and squints his eyes. “I went hunting once,” he says, deadpan. “I just sat there but nothing came. It was really boring.”

The other Lindquist shows no interest, but no one takes offense; it’s the only appropriate response from a piece of framed art, after all. The work is a self-portrait Lindquist

“It was about creating areas of interest other than the face,” he explains of his alter-ego image, and the statement makes sense. The painting is less a reflection of Lindquist’s icy expression than it is a commentary on the stealth environment surrounding him. He’s enveloped in layers of thick, weatherproof material, and the lop-eared hunting cap on his head seems at once ridiculous and brutal. The face itself suddenly seems more like a pawn than an aggressor.

Such caricatures of man-versus-nature violence are prevalent throughout Lindquist’s current exhibition at the Art Gallery of Knoxville, somewhat ironically entitled Outdoor Enthusiasts . The works feature men venturing into nature armed with a shotgun and something to prove.

The scenes are depicted in crayon-box shades of oil and acrylic, but the subject matter is not always so cheerful. In some portraits, the men are shown losing to the natural world they set out to conquer, although nature itself seems oblivious to its triumph.

In one painting, a hunter stands atop a flowery hillside proudly dangling a lifeless duck from his fist. In another, a black bear with a puppy-like expression munches on a hunter’s hand beneath a bright blue sky, surrounded by a mess of bloody appendages. A marble-eyed fawn looks on nearby, placidly surveying the carnage. In several of the paintings, inexplicably placed flames in dazzling shades of buttercup and tangerine lick upward into billowing plumes of charcoal smoke.

In light of current events, including a recent black-bear attack in Cherokee National Forest that killed a 6-year-old girl and left two others mauled, such art should not be considered PC. But Lindquist says the exhibition has been scheduled for several months now and that he didn’t even hear about the attacks until he got to Knoxville. He admits that the exhibition’s timing might seem exploitative or insensitive, but that it’s really no more so than any other type of art.

“You’re more likely to die in a car wreck than get attacked by a bear, but that’s too prosaic a way to die to make it into the paper,” he says. Most of Lindquist’s paintings were modeled after miniature mockups, which are on display in front of each work. The backgrounds are picturesque rural settings clipped out of magazines; the figurines are toy army men. “I shaved off the parts of them that made them soldiers and repainted them,” Lindquist explains. Even in that process, there lies something symbolic, something that narrows the distance between war and the element of human nature, manifest in hunting, that provokes it. Perhaps something even more localized than that.

“It’s America. It’s very American—what some people’s idea of America is,” Lindquist says. Certainly, patriotic themes come to mind: pride, masculinity, territorialism and steel-faced aggression. Such themes are replicated in the faces of the figures in the painting; like the toy soldiers they were inspired by, their expressions are cartoon-like plastic façades. There’s little depth in their eyes. They peer out from the canvas as though they were peering out through narrow tunnels, fixated on simple lives, simple goals and simple ideals.

The only evidence of vulnerability or complexity that’s present, in fact, is found in the painting titled “Men and Bear,” in which one hunter looks on as his companion is torn to shreds by a rather innocent-looking black bear. His face registers a look that’s equal parts curious and shocked, and the can of beer in his hand adds to the tragicomic atmosphere.

In this one, as in others, the focus shifts away from the violence itself to the tranquil atmosphere within which it is occurring. The gore becomes more of a surreal sideshow than a main event.

Lindquist stares at the painting and takes a swig of his beer. When asked why he chose this particular subject matter, so far detached from his own urban lifestyle, he looks vaguely puzzled himself.

Perhaps, as his self-portrait suggests, he recognizes something of himself in these hunters. And to varying extents, maybe we all do. It’s something we’re born into, as Americans—a heightened consciousness of power and violence. Lives spent vacillating between trying to understand such concepts and struggling to tune them out.

What: Ben Lindquist’s Outdoor Enthusiasts