The stark geometry of Ben Foster’s sculptural practice reveals the artist’s ongoing quest for achieving perfection. Shaping familiar objects into smooth, generic beings, Foster’s figures resist any psychological insight.
Working from his purpose-built studio, Foster spends his time just a short journey from the jagged shore of the Kaikoura peninsula where whales and other marine life occupy the coastal waters of the Pacific. To the other side his studio is overlooked by the snow-tipped peaks of the seaward Kaikoura Ranges. This arresting site is a potent force in Foster’s work, asserting itself formally in his practice through the geometric lines that trace the craggy landscape.
Foster’s interpretation of place leads him to focus on creatures that are plucked straight from his local ecology. His works have cited both indigenous species (Karearea and Shadow, 2016) and domestic animals (Good Boy, 2017). However, the sharp industrial production of these works ensures that they can equally be read as architectural entities.
Through his consideration of anatomy and form Foster delineates essential features while obscuring detail, allowing angular approximations to stand in for the nuance of curve and organic shape. His works are convincing; embodying their animality while avoiding sentimentality. Polygon structures create unfamiliar surfaces, assuring the work retains its sculptural focus and stripping the works of any individual monumentality. Foster addresses fundamental characteristics, movement, and tension, describing the flip of a tail or the grasp of a claw through simple geometry. He exploits the nature of perception, which allows us to fill in the blanks and to see the whole from suggested fragments. Karearea summarises the powerful native falcon to a few dozen surfaces, yet we instinctively understand and recognise the bird’s weight and poise.
Foster’s inherent regionalism gives his work strong ties to the landscape but he also seeks to address the temporal relationships created within the context of an exhibition format. In his 2016 exhibition Spectrum, Foster struck a dialogue between predator and prey, with The White Deer alongside Karearea, contrasting light and dark finishes to further distinguish the works. The sculptures obstinately occupy space; their facets create dynamic light-dependent surfaces with shifting shadows that augment the experience of our surroundings.
Recent works include Foster’s first investigations of the human form. Figure 88 (2016) is an anthropomorphic figure reduced to its essentials, permitting us to instantly project onto the work beyond the anecdotal. The figure stands with feet astride, weight casually balanced and hands in ‘pockets,’ presenting an impression of relaxed detachment. Although smaller than human scale – and elevated to full height on its plinth – the work imposes authority over the viewer. The title, taken from the number of facets that makes up the work, reinforces Foster’s focus on aesthetics, balance and symmetry.
Employing immaculate construction techniques, Foster’s works have no material identity – aluminum and lacquer paint form a completely anonymous surface. This high level of finish comes from the engineering focus of Foster’s practice, which has previously seen him take inspiration from industrial components resulting in sleek abstract sculpture. In his more recent work, the linear planes suggest both the design of digital CAD models and the art of origami; these works could be molded from resin or even folded from paper.
Ben Foster toys with our perception of his artfully constructed archetypal forms; we evoke meaning onto the sparest of surfaces. Through slick design and industrial production his sculptures are at once ambivalent and stark, yet take on a universal appeal.
Essay by Jane Apperley
BORN: 1977, Waipukurau
EDUCATION: Bachelor of Visual Arts, Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology
AWARDS: Barbara Wood Memorial Foundation Trust Scholarship (2006); The Wallace Art Awards - Finalist (2005); Toss Woollaston Art Scholarship (2005)
PUBLIC EXHIBITIONS: NZ Sculpture OnShore, Auckland (2012, 2010); Shapeshifter, Wellington (2012); Ellerslie International Flower Show, Hagley Park, Christchurch (2010); Preview, Centre of Contemporary Art, Christchurch, Temple Gallery, Dunedin (2009); Artist in Focus, The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu, Nelson (2009); The Wallace Art Awards, Wallace Trust Gallery, Auckland; Pataka Museum of Arts and Cultures, Wellington; Centre of Contemporary Art, Christchurch (2006)
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY: ‘Fresh work shows off young talent’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, Mar 2013; ‘Kinetic Sculptor’ by Joanne Taylor, Latitude Magazine, Issue 19 Oct/Nov 2011, p 84-88; ‘Celebrating a Simple Existence’ by Emma Bailey, The Timaru Herald, Mar 2010; ‘Fresh Blood’ by Virginia Were, Art News New Zealand, Spring 2006, p 82; ‘Sculptor Artist in Focus’, The Nelson Mail, May 2006