Ben Woodward was jaded about the art world before he even had a chance to succeed in it. Born in West Philadelphia in 1974, Woodward has made art since he was a kid. He entered the Rhode Island School of Design with an attitude, and majored in film and animation, assuming he could teach himself anything else. One thing he did learn was that he didn’t care much about film or animation. After leaving college a few credits shy of a degree, he ditched the world of high art and became serious about street art. He began to paste his screen prints up outside, free for the public. Years later, Woodward now finds himself balanced between both worlds. His work is equally comfortable hidden in alleyways or displayed in museums, and you’ll see it both places.
Woodward’s pieces are windows into a naïve little world, presented without judgment. He populates his paintings and screen prints with the bodies or body parts of fuzzy, doe-eyed and disarming characters. Not human but with human qualities his characters are grave little folk who go about their psychedelic business with utter seriousness. Still, since they lack recognizable markers like race, sex, and class, they are able to transcend stereotypes and embody the essence of peoplehood. They’re violent, thoughtful, vulnerable; they celebrate and grieve. With bright and beautifully coordinated color schemes, they can resemble religious icons - arms multiply as the yeti-like guys zip off each other’s furry skins or cut open their own rib cages.
Though Woodward’s compositions are fairly stripped down, the creatures can look like demons out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, whose books can be found among the clutter in Woodward’s Philadelphia studio. Bosch was a 15th-century Flemish painter who covered dark canvases with violent, depraved little critters, and his influence pops up in Woodward’s work. And though there is also symbolism in Bosch’s work, Woodward takes his to a new place his anatomy, carefully rendered and not gruesome, becomes a metaphor for human relationships and self-discovery. He does his homework, and keeps an anatomy book close by for reference.
Woodward is a founding member of Space 1026, a high profile artist collective and gallery in Philadelphia that has been home to a lot of young urban artists since it was founded in 1997. But as the Space has grown over time, many of its former street rats have watched their careers take off. And like his fellow members, Woodward’s work has an international audience. Woodward still uses his homemade paste to put work up on the street, but plenty of his wheat-pasting now occurs on whitewashed gallery and museum walls. Woodward believes that both aspects have the potential for creativity and growth.
Recognition from the so-called “art world” he once rejected hasn’t changed Woodward, but starting a family has. His humanlike characters parade through his illustrations for “Sullivan’s Solo”, a 2007 children’s book. He also illustrates the stories of his young daughter, whom he counts among his influences. These invented beings are cute, but just like always, they sag, wrinkle; they have weight. Woodward never quite lets us forget that his images refer to something real, and the grotesque antics represent us at our best and at our worst.