Heather Benjamin's art is often both hopelessly romantic and overtly disgusting. The Providence-based illustrator (and frequent VICE contributor) regularly depicts women crying over broken hearts, couples looking into each other's eyes mawkishly, and other images reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein or 50s cartoons—but the subjects are generally covered with insects and varicose veins or discharge is erupting from their various orifices.
Her intricate drawings, created the old-fashioned way with pencil and ink, reference the type of "over-the-top girly imagery and emotions" found in vintage media, but the way she embeds them with visceral, confrontational quirks reflects her own feelings about femininity and the human form. Benjamin's characters are beautiful and the scenes she creates can be sexy, but they're equally revolting and emotionally unstable—as if she's balancing the erotic and the erratic. She's explored such ideas in two books (on top of countless self-published zines), Sad Sex and Exorcise Book, and is continuing her focus on the female experience in her third, Romantic Story, released in September at the New York Art Book Fair.
VICE caught up with one of our favorite illustrators to chat about the connections among identity, intimacy, and anxiety, as well as what genuine romance looks like to her.
VICE: Do the drawings in this book stand out from the rest of your work, or is this more of a continuation of your earlier stuff?
Heather Benjamin: Thematically, this body of work is pretty congruent with my work as a whole. I've always focused on the female experience, especially examining things like anxiety, sexuality, body image, and intimacy. What set this group of images apart from my previous work was my interest in bringing an analysis of things like jealousy and nostalgia into the mix. I always felt like my work before was very manic and in-the-moment; this body of work feels like a reminiscence to me.
Some of my primary source material for Romantic Story was the classic romance comics of the 1950s/60s, which are just brimming with over-the-top girly imagery and emotions—all the classic kiss panels, girls throwing themselves onto their beds to weep over their lost loves, etc. I was particularly interested in this classic composition that's seen on a lot of the covers of those comics where two figures in the background are embracing while a lonely girl in the foreground looks wistfully at them, shedding a single tear. I started looking at these pieces and feeling like there was already a really kindred spirit and similarity in my work, both literally in a visual sense, but also in the feelings of feminine anguish and jealousy that I was trying to convey. It made a lot of sense to me to start working directly from some of that imagery, and combining it with some of my previous visual ideas.
I'm curious about the title. Do you think of it as a "story," e.g. something with a narrative?
Actually, the title is taken directly from one of the romance comics I was influenced by while making the work for the book. Romantic Story was a serial comic publication. I decided to co-opt the name for my book directly from that since I loved how simple it was, and found the re-contextualization of it sort of nicely tongue-in-cheek. My book isn't about romance in a conventional, swoon-worthy way; it's about the anxieties and manic emotions that manifest themselves in psychotic patterns over and over throughout the course of a tumultuous intimate relationship. About obsession and complication and everything getting totally twisted and painful. So I liked the oversimplification of Romantic Story as a title.
And yeah, I liked it too because I do think of this book as a "story." In a similar way to my previous work, I care about constructing a narrative, but not necessarily an obvious or totally linear one. Through the way my single images are organized, I hope to convey a sort of progression of emotions that can be understood, but not necessarily an obvious storyline. I do feel that this particular book has a beginning/middle/end, but I'd say the beginning and end are single images and the rest of it constitutes the middle. I put a lot of importance on which images I used to start and end the book, since I think they are really important in shaping the fuller narrative.
One thing I love about your work is that it's very intimate and often erotic, but also disgusting and foul. You visualize sexuality in such a visceral and even honest way. Can you tell me about your approach to illustrating the human form?
My process of drawing the human body is sort of a dichotomous thing. On the one hand, I love the human form—I find it beautiful, and I enjoy the act of mark-making, so illustrating the body is an enjoyable and meditative action for me. But, much more than that, it's also cathartic. Although I find the body beautiful, I'm more often repulsed or angered by it in one way or another, whether that's due to things like body dysmorphia or just those really trippy and dark moments where you're too aware of your own flesh and meat.
Shame and anxiety are a big part of the experience of having a body for me, too, so I'm working with those ideas as well—comfort and acceptance in nudity versus feeling too uncomfortable in your own skin to even see your own body naked, let alone others. Specifically as a woman, I feel manic about my physical form. I'm ecstatic at times to be female and to embody everything that goes along with that, and the next minute I feel explosive and swollen and leaky and out of control. I guess it is confrontational in that I'm directly addressing and hashing out my complicated feelings about my own body as well as others' every time I draw a human form.
How do you create a work from start to finish?
I'm pretty old-fashioned as far as how I create my work, which is something I pride myself on. I mostly draw on Bristol board or other heavy papers. I use pencil to vaguely outline what I'm going to be making, then go back in with either super fine pens or brush and ink. I don't create any imagery on the computer, ever. The only times I use the computer for my work is when I'm preparing something for print and need to fine-tune the contrast because my scanner isn't so great—or when I'm working on an illustration commission that's going to be displayed on the internet.
This is all partially due to the fact that I'm not super computer literate, so even if I wanted to make some multi-layered computer drawing with a tablet in Photoshop, I probably wouldn't really know where to start. That being said, I really have zero interest in doing that. I don't like the aesthetic of artwork created on the computer. I care way too much about line work, mark-making, and the physical presence of my pieces to ever be making things from scratch on the computer. I know this is a cranky old lady thing to say, but it feels like cheating to me, when people make their work from start to finish in Photoshop with a tablet or whatever. You're not going through all the suffering that's necessary if you aren't dealing with things like accidentally spilling ink all over your page or smearing a line every so often, in my opinion. I don't think you're growing as an artist if you always have the option to control-Z whatever you mess up.
"I'm psyched if even just a few people look at one of my drawings and are like, 'That's how it is!'"
Although you might not be thinking about the reader's perspective while making your work, what would be a fulfilling emotional or intellectual response someone might have while looking through Romantic Story?
It's true that when I'm making my work, I'm not really considering the viewer at all. My work is created completely as fulfillment for myself, in order to sort of release and articulate my emotions. That said, obviously I do care about what people get from my work to an extent, otherwise I wouldn't bother making it public.
The best is when people—usually it's women, but not always—say that my work really resonates with them for this or that reason, and we can get into a really great conversation about being able to relate to each other's experiences. Like when it's hard to articulate a thought, and then somebody says it in exactly the right way and you're like, " THAT'S what I meant!" I'm psyched if even just a few people look at one of my drawings and are like, " That's how it is!"
What is the most memorable romantic gesture you've witnessed or experienced?
I've been with my partner for a pretty long time and the thing that just always floors me and makes me swoon is the experience of really growing together. Working on the things about yourself that you want to improve upon, and being able to do that successfully with the help and support of another person, as well as being that person for them, is really difficult, but in the moments when it happens and is visible it's really incredible. I guess most of the time it's sort of behind the scenes, but then when it manifests itself, that's the time when I think you can really feel like you're connected to another person in an otherworldly way. Witnessing another person's growth alongside you as well as experiencing your own as a result of them being there for you is pretty romantic to me.
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