The Jersey City-based artist, Ana Benaroya candidly opens up about the inspiration and the vision behind her colourful, cartoonish paintings. Here, she says, “the most important place […] is the place of my imagination. […] That’s where all these ladies live.” And, indeed, a lot of vibrant, bare female bodies animate her artwork. In the fantasy of comics and of Sapphic love, Ana’s women are free and independent from the patriarchal chains in their powerful and sexy naked bodies.
Unable to identify with the stories about women she read, Ana Benaroya started to write, or better to paint, her own. From copying the muscles seen in her anatomy books and slowly discovering her sexual orientation through stories of male superheroes, to studying art at Yale and opening her own studio in New York. For Ana, the thread of her ever-growing artistic process is women. Fantastic and cartoonish; masculine and feminine; monstrous, yet seductive; terrifying, but sexy. Female bodies, anatomies, and personas which no one has ever dared to paint like she does. Now exhibiting in a group show, Retinal Hysteria, at Venus Over Manhattan until January 13.
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When diving into your work, there are many pieces and details that catch one’s attention, but I want to start this interview by asking you about your latest collection. Tell us about your new monotypes that have been exhibited at The Armory Show New York’s Art Fair.
I created this new body of work with Two Palms, a print shop based in NYC. I started this collaboration with the print shop about a year ago and it’s been so wonderful. These were the largest monotypes I created to date - all featuring a singular woman posed in a stereotypically feminine pose. I took each pose from a famous art historical painting. I love to see how women have been posed (usually by men) throughout art history as well as in contemporary popular culture. I take these poses and hopefully give them new meaning through my reinterpretation.
Another recent achievement has been the drawing you were commissioned by the Tribeca Festival for the 2023 Artists Awards Programme and the now closed exhibit In My Room at the Venus Over Manhattan art gallery Manhattan. Congratulations! What was it like to work on this piece? How did you choose the subject and work towards the deadline? Can you walk us through the process?
Thank you! I was approached by Racquel Chevremont to be included in the Tribeca Festival’s 2023 Artists Awards. She curated this year’s selection, I was among ten artists. The unifying theme for this year was women in the arts and how our place in this industry has evolved. I knew I wanted to make a small portrait of one of my women - and in the past I have drawn inspiration from classic Hollywood starlets. Again, I love their hyper feminine presentation and posing and especially am inspired by their hairstyles. This portrait was my version of a smoking starlet with glasses - effortlessly cool.
And the drawing show you mentioned was a very exciting achievement for me - I got to show my drawings alongside two of my biggest inspirations, Tom of Finland and Karl Wirsum. This was specifically a drawing show - I titled it In My Room after The Beach Boys song. I thought of drawing as this inherently introspective personal activity, one which is intimate and can be done in true privacy. An artist’s true desires and their strangeness and their quirks can come through oftentimes in their drawings. The show was about these secret desires and fantasies. Also these two artists exist kind of outside of the traditional art historical canon (though they are certainly embraced and popular today). I often really connect with artists like this - as my journey into the fine art world started with being a bit of an outsider as an illustrator.
Both these milestones are related to New York, but this is not the only city which inspires you. I know you live and work in your Jersey City studio, have been to Italy, and love Vegas. Is there a particular place which inspires you the most in your art? Any spatial experience which shaped your work significantly?
Honestly the most important place which is important to my artwork is the place of my imagination. I obviously draw from the world around me - but it always must be filtered through the world of my imagination. That’s where all these ladies live.
Though, to respond to the places you mentioned - Italy was a huge inspiration for me as I have long loved the works of Michelangelo as well as Greek and Roman sculpture. Those muscular bodies were some of the first things that inspired me as an artist. And Vegas - I just love the spectacle and the gaudiness. It feels like a truly American city.
You got a Bachelor of Fine arts in Illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a Master of Fine Art in painting from Yale. How did these academic experiences influence your approach to drawing and painting?
Well, the world of comics and cartoons are what got me excited about being an artist. This is why I studied illustration in my undergraduate degree, I was truly inspired by the graphic image and the world of commercial art. I worked for ten years as an illustrator before applying for graduate school and ultimately attending Yale. I think you can still see so much influence in my paintings and drawings from my time as an illustrator. I brought my vibrant colour palette and my interest in narrative. Yale really helped me become a painter and understand the world of contemporary art in a better way. I had previously studied art history but never any sort of critical theory - or had my work critiqued in a fine art academic setting. I learned so much about new ways to think about my work and talk about it. But I think I brought the core of who I was as an artist into my time at Yale - I didn’t change as an artist, the programme just helped me refine my work and how I thought about it.
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Did this theoretically oriented experience where you learn and incorporate art history, established styles, and other artists’ perspectives in your work, clash with your past experience as a graphic designer? How do you merge – if at all – this scholarly formation with your professional one and with your comic-inspired, pop shapes and colours?
I somewhat respond to this in the last question - but yes it was initially quite a challenge. But I came into Yale with the desire to change course and focus on my own work rather than the work I did for clients. I wanted to learn how to translate the vision I knew I had into painting. I didn’t want to lose myself so I was quite stubborn in some ways - holding onto key things that I felt important to my identity as an artist. The high pressure environment in the programme did really push me to challenge myself and I learned so much from my classmates - as much as my teachers.
I was also always interested in how certain lowbrow art forms such as comics and cartoons could find a home within the highbrow art world. This was another reason I went back to school - I wanted to find how I could take my love of the graphic image and have it relate to an art historical context.
Comics and cartoons are still relevant to your works of art. Did anime ever play a role in your career?
Not really, no. Although I do look at it every now and then, particularly the eyes.
Your paintings have been compared to Peter Saul’s work and to Fauvist colours. You yourself previously mentioned how artists like Antonio Del Pullaiolo, Renoir, Bonnard, and Matisse inspire you. Are you still looking back to these masters or are you looking forward in defining your style?
I am constantly look back at art historical masters and simultaneously looking to contemporary culture to find inspiration. I think the world where I live is one that exists in between the past and the present. I don’t like the idea of my work existing in a specific time period - I want it to be time ambiguous. The world my women inhabit could be happening today, or perhaps one hundred years ago. Or forty years into the future.
How would you describe yourself and your art in one word?
Now, we must talk about your incredible female subjects and your use of colour. Queer, powerful, shameless naked women are the recurring theme of your paintings characterised by a unique female gaze perspective which does not blush in front of uncovered nipples. Striking use of blue, green, pink and other bold colours in unexpected places and details. Walk us through your artistic journey to this distinctive, untraditional style and what these subjects and colours mean to you and are meant to represent for your public.
Well, it started with me being a huge tomboy and being super into superheroes and comics. I became obsessed with muscles and would copy from comics I’d read and also from an anatomy book my parents had bought for me. I really identified with the male form because I wasn’t reading any books or watching any movies where a female character felt compelling - I was mostly unable to identify with any storylines I read about women. I also think, not realising that I was a lesbian yet - I connected with male storylines because they often involved a love story with a woman. If I could just pretend to be the man in the story, well then I could read about a romance with a woman.
It wasn’t until many years later, probably shortly before my entrance into graduate school, that I decided I needed to start depicting women. I had to find a way to tell my own story - although not in any sort of autobiographical way. I took the visual language and world of fantasy of comics and cartoons and brought it with me into my new paintings. The women I depict are neither masculine nor feminine they are both. They are monstrous and sometimes terrifying - yet seductive and sexy. And none of these qualities ever compromises their personhood and their autonomy over their own body.
Ana Benaroya Adagio.jpg
There is a sexual tension and almost a gender challenge or rebellion embedded in your work. Can you explain us where these come from and why is it important to represent them in your paintings?
It is related to what I was saying above - I wanted to contribute to the long history of art and the long history of women being depicted in advertising and popular culture. There are so few images of the nude female body in which the woman has complete control and autonomy over her body - she is seen exactly as she wishes to be seen. I do identify as a woman but I can barely identify with most depictions of women across all media. Also, lesbian desire is often all but invisible - often any depiction of lesbian desire is actually in service of male desire. Obviously things have got better since I was a kid - but still, I think its exceedingly difficult to depict lesbian desire in a way that makes it seen. I have to compete with the entire catalogue of sexualised imagery of women which goes back to the beginning of time (laughs).
Does your personal experience ever influence your art? Any particular external influence about from pop culture and famous artists which inspire you?
Yes of course, although my work isn’t autobiographical - I do draw from my own emotional experiences. The people in my paintings are never specific people in my life and are never specifically me. I think of my paintings and drawings as my friends sometimes - and sometimes as a facet of my personality that never shows itself in real life. I’m a pretty quiet and sometimes shy person - so I like that I can be loud and aggressive in the imagery I create.
It’s hard to list all the people and things that inspire me - but right now I have been into imagery of angels and demons, both in religious painting but also in popular culture. Some artists I’ve been looking at recently include Carroll Dunham, Dana Schutz, Bob Thompson, El Greco, and Matisse (still) (laughs).
From the sketches to completing one of your large-scale paintings. Can you describe your artistic process in the studio?
I make little thumbnail sketches in pencil in my sketchbook as a starting place for most ideas. They’ll be quick and loose - mostly just to figure out composition. I never really develop too detailed a sketch for either my paintings or drawings - and I never figure out colour beforehand. A lot I enjoy figuring out as I go along. I think if I knew exactly what I wanted to do beforehand I’d get very bored - which is the last thing I want.
Is there any new work you have in store for the end of the year or the upcoming one?
Yes, I’m working on a whole new body of work that will be shown at Art Basel Hong Kong with Venus Over Manhattan. It centers on this idea of the angel and the demon - a world rife with morality and judgement. It felt like an appropriate next subject in which I can explore the female body and queer desire.
Ana Benaroya My Heart Burns Cherry Red for You.jpg
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Ana Benaroya Chantilly Lace.jpg
Ana Benaroya Illbe a Devil Til Im an Angel 2.jpg
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Ana Benaroya the Milkmaid and the Archer 2.jpg
Ana Benaroya the Matchmaker.jpg
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Ana Benaroya Love Is Calling 2.jpg
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