Forming Identities: An Interview with Yael Ben-Simon by John Herbert
Updated: May 10
In August of 2018, Israeli born Yael Ben-Simon exhibited a series of paintings in her Minnesotan debut, “Out of My Book”, at SooVAC. Her work in “Out of My Book” was inspired initially by an annual week long social media event where libraries, archives and cultural institutions offered downloadable images from their collections rendered as coloring book pages. Through this opening up of archival material, she landed on and became enamored with the book Iconologia (or “Iconology”) by 17th century iconographer, Cesare Ripa. Accessing the contents of the emblem book led to her study and recontextualization of its matter through meticulously rendered paintings.
Ben-Simon’s work has continued to be concerned with archaic symbolism from a myriad of eras and cultures, while simultaneously examining the effects that these symbols have on current collective identities and cultures. In her words, her paintings’ use of archaic imagery situates their respective era’s models of privilege, power, and allegiance to our contemporary forefront, helping to engage in conversations about artistic ownership and censorship. “The relationship between objects and symbols in my work might stand as a metaphor for the oddity in which our psyche and ultimately our identities are constructed.”
In May of 2020, Yael Ben-Simon was interviewed by John Herbert, where they discussed the nature of online archives and the origins of them into her practice, the effects at which cross-culturalism inspires research, and the impact of the digital in art.
Studio(Study), 2018, acrylic on canvas, 48"x36".
John Herbert (JH): Can you speak on how you first came to Cesare Ripa's "Iconology"? What did you find intriguing about the book's contents?
Yael Ben-Simon (YBS): For quite some time now, my work is informed by archaic symbolism and often times I even incorporate these images in my paintings.
For this reason, I am a frequent traveler in the land of online archives and collections, always on the lookout for old/new images to stir my imagination and prompt the making of new paintings. That is how I came across this book by Ripa. Specifically, it was through a project called “colour our collection” which offered the public free coloring sheets and books by various libraries, archives and other cultural institutions based on their materials. I guess it was their way not only to garner wide audience support but also to inform the same audience of the massive ongoing project to digitize and upload to the web a wealth of resources never before accessible. This really struck a chord in me and informed my series of 12 paintings based on 12 images from the book. I set out to borrow those images and render them in painting so it would have two layers: the first, the graphic outlines of the character depicting an idea or trait; and the second, my colorful addition on top of it – in a way that mimics the desired outcome of the aforementioned online project - having those images becoming coloring book sheets. Ironically enough, I later discovered, as part of my research, that this tradition of publishing from the medieval time onwards included a few stages of skilled labor: first, of-course the artist/draftsman who designs the pictorial elements; second, the printer who transforms the sketch onto plates and responsible for printing editions and finally the illuminator or painter who was in charge of hand painting these books so to add color.
When I discovered the book, I was instantly enamored by it. It is considered an emblem book which sort of serves as a pictorial library. In this instance it contains hundreds of personifications of different ideas, places, vices and virtues, all in the spirit of 17th century literary tradition that mixed Christianity and alchemy with Greek and Roman culture. Each entry in the book consists of three parts: name, a drawn figure that represents it and a textual description that poetically illuminates the figure and its surroundings. As such, the drawings are highly symbolic and their individual components can be traced back to various traditions so in a way, trying to make sense of each one is like solving a riddle. Perhaps, that is what attracted me to them the most. The layers upon layers of meaning encapsulated in one single image spoke of a bygone world in which the aesthetic was not only bound with centuries-old tradition but was also a tool in the project of mankind’s betterment and education. Without sounding too much of an anachronist, I do lament the fact that contemporary art often lends itself to vapidity and one-notedness, and for me this series of works influenced by this book is a way to express it.
JH: Something that is highly admirable about your painting practice is the space you make for archaic symbolism and contemporized imagery and technology to interact with one another. Does this cohabitation of older and contemporary ephemera aid in your understanding of each respective time frame?
YBS: I often times think of the role that history plays in my painting and others as well. What are the bonds we have with prior generations of artists and what progress, if any was made? By placing both phenomena in the same realm, I am suggesting that there is a bond, one that I am not fully equipped at this stage to understand but one that nonetheless exists even if only because both are products of human activity. I think every generation would like to think that the progress they made or the values they live by are much more superior than the ones of previous generations, but I often wonder what is left in us and our culture that can be traced back. So in a sense, it is more a project of reconciling past and present and finding common grounds. Moreover, I sometimes view this conjugation of layers of history in my painting as a way for me to portray contemporary psyche and to outline the connections between them. There is a strong element of construction in my works and as psychoanalysis teaches us, there is room to view the soul as a house, which often does not make a lot of sense.
Imitatione (Imitation), 2018, acrylic on canvas, 48"x36"
JH: Your more recent series of Box paintings are so surreally three dimensional through your use of digitally rendered objects and imagery such as balloons, rods, ropes and virtual drawings as mechanisms for physical painting. Specifically, the more digitally influenced imagery in your work reminds me of Microsoft Paint tools and early 21st Century digital art applications. Have you, or do you now, experiment with digital modes of art making to inform your painting practice?
YBS: Yes. My paintings are all based on digital models that have been rendered in a 3d animation program called blender. For me it is a great studio tool intended to emulate a natural environment and it is no different to me then a still life setting. The process for my recent paintings starts off with placing an empty box which is soon filled with various elements, ephemeral objects like the ones you’ve outlined and more lofty ones like remnants of classic sculptures. I explore the relationship between both when often time, I would threw in an element of free-hand drawing just to introduce a fun and frivolous element to counter what is often a violent scene.
I do not shy away from having the work present itself as connected to the digital. For me, it helps to problematize the subject matter even further. When I attempt to present a cauldron of themes such as identity, history, self-image, ventriloquism, power, agency etc. there is a special place in it reserved for the medium that possess every part of our contemporary life.
JH: Did your move to the United States for your MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago inform your interest in working with history further? Additionally, were there any artistic, literary, or societal influences outside of the research you had conducted that has informed your practice since you have come to the US?
YBS: Oh wow, so much has changed in my life and in the world that I really can’t precisely map the consequences that led to this trajectory in my work. I think that being here, away from my home country that is, afforded me a sort of distance that helped inform my way of thinking and making. I employed this kind of distance even further when I started looking at old images from a completely different culture than my own. Much of my research-based work has been shaped while here in the US. This kind of work really started to morph after grad school when I began researching some of the patterns I’ve been using in my works up until then.
I then developed a body of work that was based on coat of arms images that were prevalent up until the modern era. The impetus for engaging with such images of allegiance was materialized after the sad turn of events in 2016 and the rise of nationalism thereafter.
JH: In the wake of COVID-19, many libraries and research institutions have opened up their collections and archives digitally to the public. Have you been accessing any of these materials at all since you have been home?
YBS: Yes, it is a part of a trend that is accelerating in recent years. I think that since the crisis erupted, museums have been offering more virtual tours and collections and other cultural institutions have expanded the digital offering and allowed more access to what otherwise required subscription. The New York Public Library, for example, has a great program of resources and archives you can access from home and it is through their platform that I can collect my images. Another free resource is archive.org that has a wealth of manuscripts and books that no longer have copyright protections. There is really an unprecedented amount of images and texts online these days, which is really sort of a treasure trove in these days of quarantine.
JH: You were included in an incredible looking group show, "2020", at Thierry Goldberg Gallery in New York in the beginning of the year. Are there any forthcoming exhibitions or projects that you are working towards in the near future?
YBS: Thanks! I was supposed to take part in a group show at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts here in New-York City to conclude a residency I did in their print shop during the summer. Since things are still pretty dire in the city, I have no idea whether this will eventually occur.
JH: On a lighter note (and somewhat darker one), what have you been up to over the past two months of quarantine? Any new routines? Any good books, television, food?
YBS: Like everybody else, I am still trying to cope with this new situation. I feel like taking it day by day and not putting too much pressure on myself to “make something” out of this situation, so most of the time is spent relaxing, reading and watching movies/tv. At first, it was really hard for me to concentrate on reading but I slowly managed to read entire passages without reaching for my phone. Yay! I was recently reading a collection of essays by Carlo Ginzburg, an Italian historian about the discipline of history and its relationship to image making. I was catching up and reading Ranciere. Guilty pleasure wise, I have a thing for Scandinavian crime tv series and british cooking shows, so I was able to devour those.
I am now slowly trying to go back and make sketches for new works.
JH: Lastly, what do you think an emblem book like Iconologia would look like in 2020?
YBS: That’s a really good question and in the past I’ve actually thought of what would be a modern equivalent of an emblem book. At the risk of contradicting myself, I really think our society has a radically richer visual culture than 17th century Europe. If you think of the purpose of those books what comes to mind is really an attempt at moral education that is deeply rooted in contemporaneous tradition and was consumed as a sort of entertainment. I think of cinematic tropes and certain archetypes such as the villain, fame-fatal, flawed hero etc. that are easily read by consumers and displaying current moral perceptions. Perhaps a more succinct version that contains those archetypes and can come close to a book like Iconologia would be Marvel comic books, even though I’m hardly a connoisseur in that area.
Clockwise left to right: 1) Box no.5, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 50"x44". 2) Europe, 2018, acrylic and oil on canvas, 56"x42". 3) Untitled (The Dying Niobid II), 2018, acrylic, spray paint and oil on canvas, 56"x42". 4) Box no. 4, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 50"x44" 5) Box no. 6, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 50"x44".
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. They have been recently shown with Geary Contemporary NYC, Fig 19 NYC, Soo Visual Arts Center in Minneapolis, Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning in Queens, NY, Hyde Park Art Center and the ZouB Art Center in Chicago as well as in the Woksob Family Gallery in State College PA. Recent fellowships include Elizabeth Foundation of the Arts SIP fellowship NYC and NYFA’s Immigrant Artists Program NYC. Artist Residencies include: MASS MoCA MA, Wassaic NY, Pilotenkueche Artist Residency in Leipzig Germany, SIM Residency in Reykjavik and Vermont Studio Center VT. Her works have been featured in New American Paintings in 2017. She received her BFA from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design Jerusalem in 2011 and her MFA from theSchool of the Art Institute Chicago in 2015.
John Herbert is an art historian and writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.