STORIES

Ben Frost Paints Truth to Power

By David Jenison on June 15, 2018

Ben Frost is absolutely distasteful. At least that's what some people think, including the newspapers who called him "sick" and "perverse" and the police officers who've tried to shut down his shows. Apparently these objectors didn't dig images of masturbating cartoon characters.

The Melbourne-based artist doesn't have many fans in Big Pharma either as he famously paints over drug packaging in unflattering ways, but Frost seems to love provoking powerful targets that typically appear untouchable. He clearly relishes speaking truth to power, and his artistic skill allows him to do so with agonizing precision. PRØHBTD spoke with Frost to learn more about his visual narratives and confrontational style, and in the process, he expounded on the benefits of faking your own death.

What originally inspired you to put art on brand packaging?

It's the ultimate form of recycling! What better way to make a statement about the decaying nature of consumerism than by painting onto the decaying nature of consumerism!

I remember seeing a Xanax package in the gutter outside my apartment about 10 years ago, and it looked so out of place. Normally you see McDonald's wrappers and other common items that people are consuming every day, but seeing the Xanax package made me realize how commonplace pharmaceuticals have become. I thought it would be great to pick up that package in the gutter and start thinking about the narrative of what it was, where it had come from and how I could turn it into art that made a resonant statement about its origins. Fast forward, and I would say I've painted more than 1,000 different packages since then, in nearly every type of drug, cereal, candy, fashion, board game incarnation that I can find.

I love the pieces that involve prescription drug packaging. To what extent are you having fun with a theme, and to what extent are you trying to highlight the potential dangers of prescription drugs?

Drugs have a multifaceted effect on society—I like to explore the different expressions of this. Pharmaceuticals can provide important life-saving qualities, and they can also be incredibly destructive. Many of my paintings on pharmaceutical packages depict crying women, which are open to interpretation as to what is being discussed. Are they crying because they can't afford the drug, or are they crying because of their addiction to it, or are they in so much pain from a disease or injury that they need the drug to get them through it? Most people have a very intimate relationship and history with pharmaceuticals, and often after making certain pieces, it is fascinating to hear people's personal stories when they find some resonance and meaning in those artworks.

You have a piece that places Thumper over Hitler stamps. What about the Bambi character made it the perfect cartoon character to put atop the stamps?

Thumper is the ultimate little mindless zealot. I've used him in several different paintings, probably most famously with Inside Every Puppet Is A Fist, which shows a three-eyed Mickey Mouse fisting Thumper, while a cloned Thumper watches from the ground in such glee that he is surrounded in a pool of his own urine. He has such a coy, shit-eating grin whenever you see him, I can only think of SpongeBob SquarePants or Ren and Stimpy to have such a ridiculous face. Putting Thumper onto the vintage World War II stamps relates to how I think western society overall is becoming more fascist and intrusive, and we're mindlessly lapping it up.

What made the Cookie Monster a good fit for OxyContin packaging?

Cookie monster loves cookies. You could say he has developed an unhealthy addiction to them. So much so that all he can think or talk about is cookies. You would think that one of the doctors on or near Sesame Street would cancel his prescription and suggest rehabilitation—but alas, we are forced to see his googly wide-eyed face spitting cookies at parties or even the workplace, embarrassing not only himself but his loved ones. Over and over again with that same boorish mantra… "Cookies! Me want cookies! Cookies! Me want cookies!" This monster needs Betty Ford.  

You have a sad Bart Simpson over packaging for bullets. What can the U.S. learn about gun control based on what Australians have experienced since the country tackled the issue in 1996?

You have to remember that Australia has about the same population as Texas, so from many aspects, we have quite a "provincial"—though still relevant—view of how we are to live in a society. USA being around 16 times larger in population and having the history that it does… obviously the American dialogue is a little more complicated. I personally don't like guns—though I did once go to a machine-gun range in Las Vegas some years ago to have a go for myself. It was quite thrilling, but ultimately very frightening, and I just don't see the need for them honestly. I'm so glad that we don't have the type of gun violence here in Australia that you find in the U.S., and I really think it comes down to having less guns. The rest of the world seems to have realized that guns are dangerous. The U.S. really needs to get with the program.

Have you ever done anything artistic with cannabis packaging or products?

Wow, that's a great idea! No, never. It's still relatively illegal in Australia, so [cannabis is] not something I can get my hands on very easily. If someone sent me some, I would definitely do something with them.

You commonly use Chanel bags as a canvas. What does the brand itself represent, and what are ways you try to amplify or subvert the brand's identity?

The Chanel bags are just really good because they have such a big white area for me to paint onto. I like the implications of fashion as it extends away from the pharmaceutical angle into ideas of wealth, body image and competitive desire. I use a variety of different packages and bags from different fashion houses, so it's not something specific to Chanel. I recently collaborated with Jeremy Scott for his last Moschino range at Milan fashion week, which was a surprising and very welcomed experience. It was really interesting to see how my work translated to a different level to operate within the actual "fashion world" premise.

My Life Is Much Happier Now includes all kinds of iconography, from the Cramps and Homer Simpson to Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Trump Horror Show. How do these various images interact with each other and the overall theme of happiness?

This was the most recent mash-up painting that I did last year. I really love going back to this style when I can find the time to. I think this piece is about perceived happiness, and how we are "sold" a lifestyle that we need to live up to. An upset Homer Simpson cradles a dead Bart, looking across the painting through a Pikachu-loving, sexy long-legged woman with "Trump" tattooed on her ass. The vertical lines on her face mimic the TV test pattern, so to me she is a metaphor for the media and its alluring yet often right-wing, FOX-fuelled lens that we are forced to look through. The children to the left are upside down and attending to an injured lamb, which further suggests panic and distress. The Cramps and Iggy Pop iconography relate to my own totems of the past, and represent personal rebellion in the face of our current political situation. The whole piece is accentuated by the rainbow in the sky above the "royal" castle with the PAYDAY candy bar logo within it, reinforcing our Who Wants to Be a Millionaire mentality to getting rich quick.

Fuck My Life is another piece our readers will love. What are your thoughts on drug control?

I don't have any specific feelings about recreational drug control, but I'm more interested in our obsession with pharmaceuticals. Our relationship to problem-solving revolves around easy fixes, so that if there is ever an issue, there is a pill for it you can take. Consumerism and drug culture work together to keep us medicated and controllable.

White Children Playing dealt with drug use. The title is interesting because non-whites are more likely to spend time in jail for drugs. Was the use of "white" a reference to the disparity?

Yes, definitely. At its core, this painting was about the fact that we have stepped up our level of widespread drug use from things like weed to shooting up heroin and meth. When I painted this around 1999, all the kids in their 20s and younger were doing it like it was nothing. It was what everybody did. These days all the young kids are on Adderall and different things, so it keeps stepping up in intensity with every generation. The inclusion of "white" within the title suggests how hypocritical society is and how people from different ethnicities are unfairly targeted by the police. "White children" seem to be able to get away with anything, and the disparity is obscene.

Tell me about the Ben Frost Is Dead event in 2000 and what you hoped to communicate with it.

I faked my own death at my last exhibition in Brisbane before moving to Melbourne. It felt like a spiritual ending and renewal, so the idea of death seemed appropriate. For the exhibition invite, we made a little flyer so it looked like it had been photocopied from the newspaper funeral notices, saying that I had passed away and that people were invited to attend a service at the gallery. We were lucky enough to send out hundreds of these "invites" through the mailing list of the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane. By coincidence, just as the invites arrived at their destinations, a local and very famous art patron died, and people thought I had played some kind of sick prank to take advantage of his passing. The newspapers picked it up and ran with it, and for a young artist, it was just enough momentum to brand me as a controversial artist—such that I've always felt comfortable pushing the boundaries with a lot of my work.

What personal values have the biggest impact on the common themes that run throughout your artwork? 

I'm always trying to arrive at a nexus between beauty and horror. I want the viewer to enter the work via the relatable pop elements, but stay a while to engage and dig deeper at some of the further layers that are being presented. Our everyday society is a roller coaster of emotion. One minute we're watching corgi videos, the next we're watching a school shooting. The contrast of extremes is what interests me.

Police officers have tried to prohibit your artwork in the past. What tend to be their reasons for prohibiting your art, and how do you attempt to stop law enforcement from doing it?

A lot of my work is graphic, and I try and be careful to make sure there is a clear and substantial meaning in most of what I do. I've had a few exhibitions shut down by the cops. Ultimately, I'm choosing to play with some unsavoury imagery, but I would hope that underlying the surface aesthetic is a statement that might be understood by everybody.

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