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On the Works of Benjamin Reiss

Package Factory, 2017, mixed media, 95X93x58 inches, 
photo credit Benjamin Reiss
Package Factory, 2017, mixed media, 95X93x58 inches, photo credit Benjamin Reiss

Benjamin Reiss’s work is intense and fun. Generally, his work looks like a schematic come to life, or a cross section and a “how it works” diagram.

Machines interiors are treated like guts or dreamscapes. Items and objects of symbolism taken from larger societal narratives, as well as personal connections stack, float, flow, mutate, and animate through intricately developed dioramas, while exploding elements cascade and prop one another up in an armature and scaffold of webbing details and limitless materials.

Benjamin Reiss describes his larger projects usually beginning with feelings of guilt, fear and/or dread surrounding a rip in the smooth narrative fabric of everyday life. With the right lighting, every aspect of buying Chap stick in CVS becomes menacing. With a can-do spirit and good work ethic, he responds to these rips by asking a simple question. For example, being struck that the sound of a jet droning overhead, something of manifold violence, is a soothing part of his daily environment, experienced as wind rustling through trees leads him to ask “how does that engine work?” Most recently, an attempt to think about how packaging siphons and reproduces desire on a global scale had to begin by asking how a card-backed blister package is made.

Dustbuster and Cradle (Detail) mixed media, 32x15x19 inches, 2016
photo credit Benjamin Reiss

drawing sketches for Dustbuster and Cradle (Detail) mixed media, 32x15x19 inches, 2016
photo credit: Benjamin Reiss


Starting by studying dry language of diagrams, instructions, textbooks and museum displays, making lots of notes and drawings he quickly finds that the understanding is brimming with narratives. Keeping attuned to how he’s moved by the depictions of machines, organs or principles of physics and finding that their particular languages of abstraction always bend back toward the extended, concrete, embodied, feared and desired. A new, broad associative layer of imagery mushrooms from the first: fragments of ads, foodstuffs, body parts, cartoons, toy weapons, household objects, religious symbols, past educational material, and subtler, less-traceable elements emerge in the making, exposing the vast, unconscious contours of the understanding.

Understandings are formed most basically by one’s own building blocks, through endlessly amazement. A bigger work is developed over many months, frequently over a year, and can be as much a constellation or body of work as it is a single piece.

Jet Engine (detail) mixed media, 2016, photo credit Benjamin Reiss

Reiss describes his process as a slow tantrum, straining to keep a sense of self and agency seated in his body and its capacities, a regressive appeal to a lost, non-outsourced kind of moral and epistemic responsibility.

But making objects is more than a wish or a metaphor. As labor, it’s the direct expression of tools and techniques learned on the job – in acrylic and wood shops, and in prop, set and museum display fabrication, – and immediately at his disposal to affect material as producer and consumer. Also, as for many artists, making things is and always was play. The sense in which knowing is like playing, another means of rehearsing primal and possible selves freaks me out and is a central concern.