For some, the word artist evokes the image of a painter standing pensively and composed in front of a canvas perched upon an easel, grasping a brush in one hand and a palette in the other. Take one look at Benjamin Hollingsworth, and you'll realize an artist can be more than that.
Hollingsworth, a 27-year-old Charleston native, began his career, not studying Chagall and sketching still-lifes in art school, but sprinting across soccer fields and sweating in his shin guards. His skill soon proved worthy of a professional career, but after playing with both the Charleston Battery and a professional team in Israel, he endured an acute knee injury in 2006 that forced him off the field. While this injury soon curtailed his soccer dreams, it would also become his creative crucible.
Instead of falling into an ennui bred of a sudden stagnancy and unworn soccer cleats Hollingsworth found himself in the midst of an expressive and imaginative renaissance that began with a sketch pad given to him as a kid. While some may find a transition from the athletic to the creative to be unusual, Hollingsworth believes it was a natural one.
"The reason I love art," he says, "is because I have the same emotions and anxiety you have going into a game. You're always trying to outdo your last performance."
Painting is a quicksilver vocation, its product being as unpredictable as the ideas that inspired it, and for Hollingsworth this means you must "think on your feet," just like a player in a game.
Hollingsworth's talent, paired with the vestigial instincts of his soccer days, has spawned a vibrant and fresh body of work that thwarts the convention of professional training. His work employs serious and universal themes — death, poverty, and rebirth to name a few — and sets them within an original and innovative mixture of textures, colors, and media. Evidence of his athleticism can also be seen in his paintings — you can almost feel the energy he expends with each piece through the pastiche of paint drippings, brush strokes, and spray paint.
His attitude toward art is as maverick as his work. "I don't think anything's off limits," he says. This lends to a sort of creative freedom and lack of inhibition that is so often stifled by artistic norms. Pages ripped from the Norton Anthology, wallpaper paste, and oil paint become trees in "Words Come From Trees," and a mass of dripping black paint becomes the horse's tail in "Saint IV."
Hollingsworth's uninhibited style, however, is not without its intentions. He often uses iconography, and in "The Saint Panels" a series of 96 inch by 48 inch birch wood panels, each depicting a different animal, he has subtly painted halos over each of their heads. These echo Hollingsworth's belief in animal intuition. "Animals are people," he says. "They have souls too."
Soul is what sets Hollingsworth apart. His paintings are his psyche stripped to the bone, a raw and honest telling of a story, his story, and a breath of fresh air in this world of quacks and clichés. He doesn't even need a canvas to tell it.
"My favorite art store is Lowe's," he says. "They are very do-it-yourself, and that's definitely my attitude." He paints on everything from birch wood panels and wooden doors to the insides of cereal boxes and the backs of sketchpads — living proof that art has no limitations.
Hollingsworth hails from a new generation of artists living out this notion. Christened Warhol's Children, these 20-something artists, namely the recently-deceased Dash Snow, Dan Colen, and Ryan McGinley of the New York art scene (you could even throw Charleston's Shepard Fairey in there), are producing art outside of its old confines — work that is the love child of modern art and the graffiti movement. They also ring close to the neo-expressionist work of Basquiat, whom Hollingsworth cites as one of his greatest influences. Their work requires a certain kind of daring character that only the young can possess. These renegades just happen to be putting their rebellion to good use, defying in the name of art, and speaking directly to the next generation, much like the musicians of the late Sixties and their hippie followers.
Sean Ferneau, the art director of Aster Hall, a new contemporary boutique gallery on Upper King, saw something in Hollingsworth, the man and his work, that embodied this rising epoch in the art world.
"I heard of Benjamin through gossip of a guerilla exhibit somewhere on the peninsula," he says. "On the second floor, there he was: painting in his soccer shorts like a madman onto soaring canvasses and boards, with pop music blaring. From the images of horses surrounding me, to the underground music selection, to the vibrant colors and textures, I felt as if I was meeting an artist who is truly a man of his own time."
Ferneau titled the exhibit Such Great Heights because of the large compositions with which Hollingsworth works and, most significantly, because Benjamin is a young man who is familiar with loss and transition. "What motivates his work is a sort of transcendence: moving beyond pain to experience the ordinary joy of life — lifting himself, and the viewer, beyond the mundane," Ferneau says.
The ordinary joy of life is all the artist needs. Benjamin Hollingsworth doesn't need art school. He doesn't need an easel. And he doesn't need a still-life at the Met. An artist is just a man, caught in the same complicated web of experience and lollygagging down life's ridiculous roadway, but with a little something more — the courage and compulsion to create. He is simply a man madly in love with the imagination and the audacious insanity to express it.