The Softer Side: An interview with Ben Venom

Rise of Rebellion: DailyServing’s latest week-long series

I recently worked on a photo shoot with arguably America’s most prominent metal band. During the fourteen hour work day, I had the privilege of witnessing these icons in action amidst thousands of objects, instruments, images and banners that celebrate the band’s nearly three decades of prominence. As the day progressed, I watched as a band member lovingly called his mom to tell her what the day holds. I saw the wife of the aging guitar player tenderly paint the balding head of her husband black in a vain attempt to preserve the appearance of youth and vitality. What was instantly apparent was the first-hand deterioration of the aggressive spirit of rebellion as it aged over decades. No one can deny the use of masquerade and theatrics in heavy metal culture, but what is rarely seen is the softer side of this unruly behavior, which was something that I was privy to that day. When thinking about this softer side of metal and its rebellious association, it occurred to me that rebellion is an act best suited in short bursts, rather than sustained in perpetuity. I recently sat down with Ben Venom, an artist fascinated with the rebellious nature of metal, black metal, the occult and southern identity, to talk about his work. Venom employs many of the symbols and images associated with these defying subcultures, and by creating handmade quilts, pillows, flags and banners, the artist is able to celebrate and mock these cultures simultaneously.

Seth Curcio: Ben Venom seems like an all too convenient name for an artist with rebellious southern identity and slant towards black metal. Is this your real name?

Ben Venom: No..Venom has been my nickname since I was a teenager. I grew up going to a lot of punk rock and metal shows in Atlanta, GA, and it came about from hanging around the that scene. Everyone had some obscure nickname, mine just stuck and never left.

Later, I started to incorporate my nickname into my artwork more and more while I was at the San Francisco Art Institute pursuing my masters degree. I was tired of having my last name misspelled (Baumgartner) in exhibition catalogs or postcards for art exhibitions. Plus, so many people already knew me as Ben Venom, it seemed like a natural progression and of course a much easier name to spell!

SC: Much of your new work uses imagery and materials that are related to black metal as the aggressive epitome of an already masculine sub culture. You physically unite imagery from this movement by sewing it together into quilts, flags and banners. Where do you derive the source material?

BV: The source material is collected from attending concerts, reading, and researching certain aspects of metal culture. For instance, Sam Dunn, Canadian anthropologist and heavy metal fan, has produced two documentaries that explore the origins of heavy metal music from early bands such as Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath, to current bands like Slayer & Mastadon. I recently read Lords of Chaos and just bought Only Death Is Real (An Illustrated History of Hellhammer and early Celtic Frost). These books offer an inside look into what goes on behind the scenes or after the music dies, literally, HA! More specifically, a few pieces are directly inspired by bands that use corpse paint. Influenced by the likes of Alice Cooper, KISS, and the Misfits many black metal bands paint their faces with black and white shapes to mimic inhumanity or death. I re-design these shapes into forms that mimic faces or objects associated with metal or the occult. I was initially inspired to start quilting after seeing the Gees Bend traveling exhibition, which showcases handmade quilts from a very rural region in Alabama. I had a lot of old Heavy Metal t-shirts hanging in my closet and thought it would be interesting to make a metal themed quilt from them. The result was a 6′ x 9′ quilt constructed with over 35 vintage heavy metal t-shirts from my own collection and a few purchased on Ebay. The quilting pattern (Red Stitching) forms a Pentagram shape when viewed from a distance. The quilt is entirely hand-made using a basic sewing machine and took roughly 3 months to complete.

SC: What do you feel happens when you merge largely rebellious imagery from metal culture with the often-associated domestic quality of sewing?

BV: I see it as a high speed collision of polar opposites much like Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland. When these 2 opposing forces meet the result can be catastrophic or something entirely new. Plus, there has always been an aspect of the punk rock and metal culture that includes hand sewing patches, pins, or metal spikes onto clothing. My work just goes a little further by merging the ideas and aesthetic of punk and metal culture with domestic craft, i.e. pillows, quilts, and embroidery. I am certainly not attempting to organize the choas or energy of metal culture into some form of conservative product. Rather, I re-interpret it in a different medium.

SC: How does quilting alter or enhance the unruly nature of metal?

BV: It draws attention to the more ridiculous antics of the movement. I compare my work to the over the top stage sets, costumes, and over all debauchery associated with the bands and audience. I have always had an interest in sub-culutres that go just a little to far into the extreme. These people are able to the push the boundaries of society past its limits and towards something completely new. In the end even Anton Lavey needed and a warm blanket to sleep with when it was cold outside!

SC: Also, it occurred to me that quilt making is often used as a commemorative or memorial act. I know that it is also very common to see fans use hand made banners to celebrate and show loyalty to their favorite band. Do you feel that the act of quilting and the product that results celebratory in nature? Are these objects a tribute to the rebellious culture that they reference?

BV: The work is simultaneously a tribute and a form of mockery at the unbelievable antics employed by some of these bands. For instance, Ozzy biting the head off of a bat onstage or snorting a line of ants while on tour with Motely CrueBlackie Lawless of W.A.S.P used to shoot fireworks from his crotch, of course this back fired one night and blew his balls up! The work takes on this rebellious mentality by utilizing the darker aspects of the culture with a medium that is the complete polar opposite and very un-metal, craft. My work exists within these opposing forces, a sort of negation from negation to the extreme.

SC: You have explained to me that you are able to create very subtle references to the history of metal in some of your larger works. Can you give me an example of how you embed certain messages or connections in the work that only ‘insiders’ of the metal culture would understand?

Ben Venom: Listen to Heavy Metal While You Sleep! has a few hidden secrets only someone familiar with the bands would notice. The 4 corners of the inverted cross has Ozzy on the top with Dio opposite (Dio and Ozzy used to sing for Black Sabbath and Ozzy was not a big fan of Dio when he first joined Black Sabbath) and Megadeath on one side with Metallica on the other (Dave Mustaine was kicked out of Metallica and formed Megadeath as a result). In addition, the band Pentagram is placed  on the forehead of the skull as a reference to Charles Manson and his swatiska tattoo. Iron Fist was inspired by fans that carve SLAYER into their arms as a form of scarification. The Lucifer Pillow Collection is comprised of hand shaped pillows with screen-printed images of goat heads, lighting bolts, and prison style tattoos. They represent metal cultures interest in black magic, paganism, and satanism akin to the pentagram drawn onto the palm of Richard Ramirez‘s left hand.

SC: So given that you focus much of your artistic attention on rebellious subcultures, how does the act of rebellion play out in your personal life? Any interesting stories or debaucheries to tell?

BV:Ha! In an attempt to not incriminate myself, I will just say I’m on good behavior… ’nuff said!

SC: Tell me a little about your upcoming projects, both exhibitions and unrealized artworks?

BV: I will be showing at Guerrrero Gallery here in San Francisco, CA this November. I also just exhibited work at The Lab and Buzzoid in SF this past month. I’m  in contact with an organization called Home of Metal in England and may be showing some work over there in 2011. Currently, I am working on a commission quilt for Pirate Press Records that will incorporate a lot of t-shirts from bands they work with into a whiskey bottle shaped design with a pirate ship as the quilting pattern. Unrealized artworks include some embroidery with Flying V guitars, more hand shaped pillows, and large mixed media screenprints. Live fast…diaherra!