When San Antonio artist Benjamin McVey earned his BFA in communication design from Texas State University in 1995, he thought he would enjoy a career in graphic design, so he headed to New York City where he landed a position as an art director in advertising. While his day job paid the bills, it was pretty routine. With his creative impulses thwarted as his ideas were filtered through a committee, McVey felt a bit stifled. To relieve his frustrations, he took courses in painting and drawing at the Art Students League and the National Academy School.
Conflicted between the boredom of the daily humdrum required to earn a living and support his family and his craving to express himself creatively, McVey decided in 2009 to sever the chord with the commercial world and return to Texas State’s communication design program, where he could earn his MFA to qualify for a teaching position. Midway through the program, however, his inner stirrings won out again and he transferred to the studio art program at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Known for its strong conceptual art program, the UTSA Art Department is very adept at educating students in using the left side of their brains – not just intuitive impulses – in the making of art.
Since attaining his MFA from UTSA in 2012, McVey has developed a handsome and intelligent body of work that has a strong visual presence while posing intriguing questions about the structure of space and social interaction. For his thesis exhibition, entitled “Permutation,” McVey installed a number of sculptures in which steel chairs, as metaphors for human beings, were positioned in a number of different arrangements, accompanied by other materials and passages of text.
For McVey, the use of steel is partly autobiographical. When he was a child growing up in Houston, his mother was a buyer for steelyards and he often visited a family friend’s steelyard in San Antonio, where his summer job was to clean up the scraps. To create his sculpture, “The Limitations of a Preconceived Idea” (2012), McVey bent and welded together the backs of two steel chairs that he views as stand-ins for people.
In this instance, they appear engaged in a back-and-forth conversation that never reaches a conclusion or agreement, an idea that is reinforced by a circular arrangement of typography on the floor beneath the chairs, which repeats the work’s title over and over. As a metaphor for closed-mindedness or thinking only inside the box, the sculpture is also relevant in terms the artist’s personal history. Had he played it safe and followed convention, he would still be unhappily working in advertising. By breaking the circle of his former job’s limitations, he risked financial security for the sake of creative freedom.
In other works from the exhibition, McVey examined issues relating to perceptions of America in a post- 9/11 world. “Hither, Dither” (2012) refers specifically to the Twin Towers. With each unit made of concrete weighing 2,000 lbs., the chairs that support them become metaphors for all the human beings who felt the enormous weight of this tragedy, including those who lost their lives as well as others who continue to suffer from repercussions. According to McVey, the word ‘hither’ speaks to America’s desire to continue its strong international presence, while ‘dither’ brings to mind the hesitancies and uncertainties that have confronted us since the attacks reshaped our political and economic landscapes.
In response to these dilemmas, “This is Temporary” (2012), presents a closer look at our nation’s current state of mind. Constructed of four steel chairs stacked one atop another, a totem extending from floor to ceiling refers to the enduring structure of the nuclear family, with two parents and two children. The accompanying American flag, with colors faintly visible in spite of McVey’s attempt to erase them with primer, contains the phrase, “THIS IS TEMPORARY,” which was formed by cutting into the fabric. Together, this imagery injects a note of optimism into the discussion by reminding us that, historically, political and economic movements tend to shift in cycles, and that when things are bad, they can still get better.
Following his thesis exhibition, McVey created a number of text works by printing type on vellum and illuminating the words with fluorescent lights, with the lights serving both to spotlight a phrase and reinforce it conceptually. While highlighting a paradoxical statement in “say something to quiet the silence” (2013), the white light also could refer to sound itself, as something that can infiltrate and fill empty space.
In “the sun shines on everyone without difference” (2013), the yellow light functions in a similar manner, with its obvious reference to the sun’s color. In both, McVey chose phrases that raise issues about human interaction. “say something,” for example, encourages us to think about our communications with others, while “the sun shines” invites us to ponder the topic of non-discrimination, which has become a hot political issue in San Antonio.
In 2014, McVey returned to the Twin Towers as a compositional starting point for investigating the dynamics of interplay between dualities such as order/chaos, geometric/organic, and predictable/unpredictable. In two separate but related series of graphite drawings, “Forced Lines” and “Voided Spaces,” McVey developed abstractions that use the space between the towers and masses of smoke respectively as compositional signifiers for the two sides of these dualities. As each series progresses, we begin to see an acting out of the idea that, over time, most things in opposition tend to sway back and forth between being the stronger or weaker element of the equation.
In “Force Lines” II and V (2014), the negative space that divided the buildings when they were standing has been transformed into a “forced line” that takes on its own life as it morphs from one composition to the next. In “Voided Spaces I,” billowing smoke dominates the composition, but in numbers VI and VII of the series, the thin forced line that is eclipsed by smoke in the first drawing has grown into a broad black band that, through the visual strength of its blackness, seems equally weighted with the smoke.
At present, McVey is exhibiting works from his latest series, “Fractures,” at three area venues: the UTSA Main Gallery (through July 31), Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum (through August 9), and Radius Gallery (through September 11). In the new body of work, McVey expands upon ideas introduced in earlier series as he examines issues relating to proxemics, which is the study of nonverbal communication. McVey’s particular interest concerns our natural human tendency to build invisible walls around ourselves as we interact with others, and how this common social trait is being affected by digital technology and social media.
As a schematic diagram to represent the structure of social distancing, the artist has introduced a geometric matrix of equidistant dashes or cells, each of which represents an individual’s personal space. Using a variety of media, these matrices are shown within larger environments that represent shared spaces, be they social or public. In the graphite drawing Fractures II (2015), the matrix of private spaces is superimposed over clouds of smoke, which could suggest metaphorically the idea that the chaos of public space (the smoke) is impinging on the privacy of individual pods (the dashes). Considering the prevalence and rapidly growing utilization of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so forth, how to maintain one’s privacy is indeed is becoming a widespread cultural concern. In Fractured Space I (2015), McVey brings the conversation literally into the physical space of the viewer. As light interacts with the matrix that was created by cutting into the paper, shadows call attention to wall upon which it rests, while glass over the drawing reflects images of others in the room. So, while thinking about social distance, we may become more cognizant of one another.
The most profound and captivating work of the series is a video triptych, entitled Fractured Spaces (2010). In this three-minute digital animation that runs on a continuous loop, three cubic matrices hover silently over three moving landscapes. Compositionally, the work is visually animated and optically exciting, as austere white geometric grids compete for our attention with soft organic movements of nature. Conceptually, Fractured Spaces is particularly timely and relevant, as it encourages discourse on a great divide that confronts the planet, that is, on the sharp division between nature and technology, which is so dramatically impacting our social, political, economic, and spiritual lives.
*Featured/top image: Benjamin McVey with his work at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum. Photo by Jeffrey Burton for Blue Star Contemporary.