Written by Ankit.
Benjamin A. Vierling is an American artist who is widely respected for his trademark rendering of arcane mysticism. Born in San Francisco, he currently works from his California atelier in a Gold Rush era convent. He developed an affinity for the fine arts during his childhood and embarked on a never-ending spiritual journey with an aim to explore newer vistas of artistic ingenuity. Ankit of Heathen Harvest recently availed a rare opportunity to have an in-depth discussion with Benjamin which turned out as a highly enlightening conversation which encompasses the spiritual and metaphysical geist behind the artist’s work.
Heathen Harvest: You recently created a stunning poster for Ouroboros Press, which is entitled ”Microcosmus Melothesia”. Enlighten us about the conceptual theme of this artwork.
Benjamin Vierling: This piece was specifically commissioned by the publisher to demonstrate the Zodiacal Man, a figure which appears in medieval astrological manuscripts. The image shows the 12 zodiacal signs correlating with the specific anatomical aspects which they traditionally govern. The intention was to craft a wholly new composition based on this traditional motif. In addition to the man and the zodiacal icons, my interpretation features glyphs for the 7 conventional planets hovering in the starry firmament behind the figure, while stylized zephyrs in each corner pay tribute to the four elements.
As the publisher eloquently states, ”the Melothesia demonstrates the hermetic ‘as above, so below’ motif wherein the microcosm has correspondence with the macrocosm”. The emblem further reflects this with the serpent biting its tail, bringing to mind the ouroboros in the Codex Marcianus, which is accompanied by the Greek phrase ‘EN TO PAN’, or ‘ALL in ALL’.
In creating this piece, it was important to visualize the final presentation. We chose a limited color palette of gold & black on toned paper to emphasize the graphic nuance of the medieval period. The subtle cobalt gradient was conceptualized by the printer, Broken Press in Seattle, and it proved to be a masterful design choice, rendering the presentation simultaneously archaic and contemporary.
HH: Another poster which grabbed my attention was the ”Stella Natura: The Light of Ancestral Fires 2012”. How did this collaboration with Stella Natura come about?
BV: I’ve been working with the Record Label, Pesanta Urfolk, on some other projects, and it was suggested that an image be produced to appear on the Stella Natura t-shirt and festival poster. The composition was to emphasize the solitary man communing with nature, a prevalent theme in a lot of dark metal & folk music. In my interpretation, the man is depicted as never being truly alone, as demonstrated by the abundance of life around him. A journey is implied, and the circling shadows of ravens are guides on the path. The equinox, a time when the balance between day and night is equal, is insinuated via the setting sun, whose golden rays lay half-submerged behind the darkening skyline. The boldly thrusting pinnacle of the distant mountain peak reminds the traveler of the ultimate challenge. As the image was created for a music festival, the animated characters in the border celebrate a sort of dans macabre, memorializing the triumph and passing of all things.
Stylistically, the composition finds inspiration in the elegant nuance of period Jugendstil illustrations, utilizing dense lifework and minimal color. I’m not greatly experienced with the silk-screen format, so this was a good opportunity to experiment with the medium. A successful poster-print is really a collaborative affair. Special thanks to the master of the poster, David D’Andrea, for his invaluable advice on this project. The printing was done at Monolith Press in California, and their exacting technical treatment and outstanding service also contributed greatly to the quality of the final product.
HH: A few months ago, Three Hands Press released ”Veneficium: Magic, Witchcraft and the Poison Path”, written by Daniel A. Schulke. Its cover page is adorned by your stellar creation – ”Sacred Heart”. What was the inspiration for this painting?
BV: The Sacred Heart theme was a subject I long desired to bring to life with color and form. I had the concept in my mind for years before undertaking the first sketches. In Christian mysticism, the impassioned Sacred Heart of the savior is traditionally depicted erupting in radiant life. The aesthetic of my composition is inspired by baroque-era Dutch botanical displays, wherein several types of plants are grouped in idealized bouquets, often crawling with small fauna. The meticulous rendering expresses the profound beauty of the macrocosm through adoration of the microcosm. It will undoubtedly be noted that this is a prevalent theme in my work.
After having already begun the painting, fate connected me with Schulke, and we found a suitable collaboration in pairing the image with the Veneficium book. The tome approaches the concept of toxic assimilation with humble reverence, a theme emphasized by the painting. The three plants growing from the aortal chamber are Atropa belladonna, Datura stramonium, & Hyoscyamus niger, three psychotropic and highly poisonous species, which have particular significance in folklore and legend. All of these plants are further discussed at some length within the pages of the book, being primary ingredients in the infamous ‘witches ointments’.
The image ultimately bears testament to the assimilation and transformation of baneful forces. Beauty distilled from contamination.
HH: Interestingly, you also create artworks for metal bands; the most recent one being Weapon‘s ”Embers and Revelations”. It is an astounding creation which displays classic motifs like the serpents and the daemonic skull. How would you describe the artwork? Did you work strictly on the guidelines of the band, or the process of creation was solely your concept based on the band’s vision?
BV: Sometimes the creative process takes one through a labyrinth of twisting corridors before arriving at a destination. In this case, the band had requested something bold and iconic to punctuate the aural assault levied by the new album. My initial extremely minimal and somewhat esoteric concepts seemed to miss the mark somehow. Ultimately, the frontman of the band told me of an initiatory dream he experienced which featured a Wolf and a Tiger. I endeavored to illustrate the vision by way of my own aesthetics and techniques.
The composition of this piece is fundamentally a continuum from the previous Weapon album covers. In the background is the ‘Kalachakra’, the ‘Wheel of Fate’ — a symbol I have used throughout all of Weapon’s artworks. It appears on the ‘Drakonian Paradigm’ cover image, under Lucifer’s feet. It appears again on the ‘From the Devil’s Tomb’, rotating between the inverted hanged man and the ravaging demon. Now it appears as the foundation of this image for ‘Embers & Revelations’. The Wheel is ever revolving, ever turning, and in the process, it succumbs to entropy and decay. The apex predators flank the Kalachakra as guardians, adversaries, and heraldic totems.
The horned schädel may be regarded as an evocation, a trophy, and a memorial all at once. It indicates the rudimentary structure of man as both beast and conscious vessel, the red eye of extraordinary perception being emblazoned on the Ajna chakra – seeing beyond seeing. The crown is an allusion to the song, ‘Shahenshah’ – the King of all Kings. The snakes are also familiar motifs. In scripture, they insinuate divine gnosis through venomous initiation. In Nordic myth, their tenacious coils evoke the grip of Noghogg, the serpent who gnaws as the foundation of the world.
HH: During recent years, there has been a sort of ‘renaissance’ in the underground extreme metal scenario, where bands have given due importance to ideological conceptions and have strived to depict arcane symbolism both through their music and the artwork. How important, according to you, is this coexistence of art and music?
BV: It would be difficult for me to ascertain how successful most musicians are in pairing symbol and sound. My observation is that a lot of material is somewhat intuitively concocted, with many bands simply embracing the same dramatic iconography for its shock value, whether it genuinely reinforces their creative intentions or nay. There is also a lot of appropriation of archaic visual material without any genuine depth of intention. The pressure to be extreme & iconoclastic often supplants the nuance and subtlety that is necessary for a gesamtkunstwerk to be profound.
Alternately, I suppose the ultimate test is whether the audience responds favorably. If an album withstands the trials of time because the music and the associated imagery make a succinct & powerful statement together, than perhaps deeper meaning is irrelevant. I leave it to others to establish what the criterion for success might be. While the value of musical inspiration is indispensable, my own goal is to craft images which can stand alone, regardless of the subtext.
It would be interesting to see more artistic collaborations where musicians endeavor to compose aural interpretations of specific visual works. This phenomenon was actually much more common in the late romantic and Fin de siècle symbolist eras, where composers would write musical scores to express their impressions of specific paintings. One such example is Rachmaninoff‘s haunting symphony, The Isle of the Dead, which he wrote after seeing Arnold Böcklin‘s powerfully evocative painting of the same name. In that instance, the image provided the impetus for the melody and the musical motifs. Modest Moussorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition also comes to mind, a series of musical vignettes that were constructed to illustrate through sound, a particular painting exhibition. These short pieces are arguably some of the most emotionally potent moments of music offered by the late romantic era. Several other period examples abound.
HH: As a veteran artist, what is your opinion about the current scenario of contemporary art? With the advent of digital art, people seem to have diverted from the importance of traditional art. Of course, traditional art is still alive and widely respected, but does it have the same impact on people as it once had?
BV: Pens more astutely critical than mine are exploring what this means culturally and artistically, but I regard digital art as essentially a continuum from preceding structures, though the techniques may radically differ. The artist remains confronted with the challenge of manipulating form and color to produce an illusion, so in that sense the process is the same. What differs, of course, is the method.
What makes the act of painting so profound is the actual process of seeing and rendering; the bridge from eye to hand. It’s an endeavor that literally evokes an inchoate vision and gives it a physical presence. The art lies in tempering inspiration with the structure of technique. Not being a digital artist, I’m unable to ascertain whether or not the computer can facilitate the same kind of meditative fulfillment that is found at the easel, but it’s conceivable that it can.
My observation is that the digital medium is poorly suited to imparting the principal of stillness, a quality often found in many great paintings. The static image holds the power to focus the viewer’s observations on eternity, even if only for a moment. From Memling‘s lucid portraits, to Caravaggio‘s passionate scenes of conflict, to Khnopff‘s melancholic atmospheres, the impression of a singular moment beyond time pervades. This paradox of capturing an eternal phenomenon on a finite plane has driven creative ambition in the western world for centuries, but is eroded in the digital sphere, where excessive novelty dominates.
It’s interesting to question whether the meticulously rendered painted image still has the ability to provoke deep introspection on the part of the viewer, in a cultural syntax where all images, from all times, are available for consumption via the internet. Odd Nerdum, the great Norwegian painter, commented in this dilemma even before the digital communication had spun its tenacious web, saying something to the effect that anyone who chooses to paint today is not only in competition with everyone else who is currently painting, but with all great painters from all times. In a sense, this is true, because the standards for great painting were established centuries ago by those, like Raphael, whose herculean efforts arguably set an impossibly high precedent to surpass.
Nevertheless, I believe that the attempt is worth something, even if one can only aspire to the greatness established in bygone eras. When growing up as a child, some of my most vivid memories are of quietly taking in the image of a beautiful painting. It seemed to me a most noble aspiration, to give profound feeling a tangible form that others might find inspiration in for millennium to come. It’s a flame I endeavor to keep burning in my own work.
HH: Your style is instantly recognizable with the bright color schemes, symbolism and classic imagery, which is enriched with esoteric allegories. Which era’s of classical art do you take inspiration from?
BV: It would be difficult to isolate any one era as the most important, since the surveillance of history reveals the importance of every epoch. The Classical period of the ancient world provides a foundation which western art has always looked to for inspiration, so it’s necessary to begin there. Many archetypal characters and idealized forms were given substance during that time, and they remain highly influential today.
The time period that speaks to me with the clearest voice remains the early Renaissance in Northern Europe, where crystallized forms and the rich use of color brought the reflections of the contemplative mind into focus. This era is further highlighted in my work because of the mixed techniques that I use when painting, which were innovated during the 15th century. If I were to look to one beacon for guidance, it would be Hans Holbein. Though Dürer almost singlehandedly defined an age with his elegant depth of perception, it was Holbein who refined this visual language into an enduring standard. Holbein imbued his subjects with a dignity to which we can today only aspire.
I’m also greatly enamored of the romantic era, which saw the blossoming of the Nazarene movement in 19th century Germany. This group of painters endeavored to resurrect the craft of painting as a catalyst for spiritual development, and as a means of preserving timeless values amidst the rapidly accelerating force of industrialism. By using Gotik compositional structures and painting techniques, the Brotherhood of St. Luke, as they called themselves, re-interpreted the aesthetics of the past to reflect the present; an ambition I have no small resonance with now in the 21st century.
When creating artwork for bands or esoteric texts, I tend to reference all manner of arcane sources; Neolithic carvings, Bronze-age decorative motifs, sacred iconography, medieval illuminated manuscripts, baroque reliquaries, and so on. There is a lot of literature and music being created now that seeks to affirm itself by connecting with something ancient. I strive to solidify this bond when crafting appropriate imagery.
HH: The artworks created by you boast intricate details, which are carved meticulously through intensive labor and effort. How do you undertake the painstaking and exhaustive process of creation, while managing not to completely burn yourself out?
BV: Ha, good question! I find that it’s best not to think in defeatist terms, so I try to banish thoughts of entropy from my mind. The ongoing challenge is always to balance sustainable productivity with genuine inspiration. Sacrifices must be made in order to devote one’s self to the Work, and a lot of petty indulgences must be dispensed with. Sometimes life graciously encourages this endeavor and sometimes dense thorns swallow the path. If the going was always easy, the fruits of the labor would undoubtedly be mediocre and bland. It’s important to always strive to greater heights. I endeavor to keep my sights on the distant peaks, and anticipate nothing other than a life-long journey ahead of me. If the going becomes easier, may it be only to further the cultivation of ever greater works.
HH: It is often debated that in the modern world – which is dominated by technology and modern science – we do not require the ‘hogwash’ of ancient traditions. They are vastly debunked and usually such beliefs are regarded as the junk of our ancestors’ limited knowledge. But is it really true? What is your stance on the relevance of ancient traditions in the modern era, especially since your artwork is spiritually charged with esotericism and sacred motifs?
BV: It could be argued that it is science which enabled the resurgence of ancient ideas & traditions, since technological advances permit the research and facilitate the accelerated communication that makes the flourishing of arcane ideas possible. I tend towards a more holistic view, wherein all these seemingly opposed concepts integrate to form a greater picture. Whether ancient cultures possessed greater understanding of our world, I certainly have no idea. The point rather is that there is much to learn now by excavating the achievements of our ancestors, be they cultural, spiritual or otherwise.
Regarding art specifically, I maintain that the tradition of manual image-craft in the western world remains as valuable today as it did in times past. Technology allows us to preserve, document, and share in this legacy, as often as it also distracts us with petty nonsense. Technology then, is ultimately neutral in the hands of the conscious mind that wields it. So it is with knowledge and creativity.
HH: What is your perception of the spiritual essence of art? Is it merely a mirror to reflect one’s nature or perhaps a vessel to reshape it?
BV: The potential for both manifestations is there, as you point out. ‘Art’ has meant different things at different times, but it has the ability to guide culture as often as it reflects internal processes. The interpretation of art also tends to vary widely depending of the subjective circumstances of the viewer. What achieves cultural significance today may languish in obscurity tomorrow. Art historians and academics will all posit different views no doubt, but in my humble opinion a timeless image should be able to stand the test of time. Attentions may shift, but relevancy remains for those who choose to look.
My goal when I paint or draw is to invest my labors with authenticity, wherein the work is its own reward. The geist comes from the perception of what lies beyond tangible forms. The goal is to recreate these visions through labored technique so that others might see them. Success is then measured by the intensity and clarity of the visions to come.
HH: Are you working on new commissions nowadays? If yes, what are they?
BV: I am always working. Many projects take years to ripen to fruition, and at the moment there are several seeds germinating. Painting exhibitions will continue into 2013 with the Strychnin Galley in Berlin, Germany. I’ll also be hanging some works in a few group shows soon to be announced. On the publishing front, existing collaborations with various publishers and labels will continue to unfold in the coming seasons. Most immanent on the horizon will be the unveiling of the cover art for the french band Aosoth, whose IVth release is due out late winter on Agonia Records, in Poland. In additional to the continued involvement with old alliances, expect to see more collaborations with Three Hands Press, Ouroboros Press, Pesanta Urfolk Records, ToT Records, HHR, and more.
HH: Thank you for taking out the time and effort to answer this engaging questionnaire. The final space is yours.
BV: Thank you, Ankit. Websites such as Heathen Harvest continue to provide a forum for examination & discussion, and I appreciate this opportunity to elaborate on some of the subtle nuances of the creative process. Engaging dialogs are invaluable for understanding the impetus behind the work, which in turn leads to greater creative output. This is especially true with collaborative endeavors, when the subject and content are cued by others. For art to have lasting relevance, it also needs to be an interactive phenomenon, engaging the spectator. I express my gratitude towards those who take the time to look deeper into my work.