On view now in Sasaki's gallery space is Ben Jundanian's Paracosmos, a fantastical cityscape mural installation. We sat down with Ben for an artist Q&A to learn more about his inspiration and working process.
Q: How did your artistic career begin?
A: As a kid my parents signed me up for the town soccer league. According to them I was sitting on the sidelines drawing on scrap paper instead of playing, so at that point they turned to each other and said, ‘maybe he’s not going to be into sports.’ I was always that kid drawing in the margins of every school notebook and even today I still draw on every piece of paper put in front of me. I think it was just sort of the natural course for things to go. Of course, at some point I considered architecture, and to be in a studio like this, surrounded by architects, working side-by-side while I’m producing my art, is a dream made real.
Q: Your love of architecture is fairly apparent in your cityscapes. Can you talk more about how your early aspirations to architecture shape your artistic and worldviews, if at all?
A: It’s absolutely my major drawing point. I discovered drawing paper at a young age and immediately started drawing my houses. My dad built my house; we bought a tiny little cape-style house in the Merrimack valley and every summer I remember my dad building an addition. Those plans and blueprints were always out, lying around and I just remember being like, “This is how things get built: first it starts with a drawing.” And so I was always designing my dream houses, the mansions I was going to live in, an airplane museum, this is the zoo I want to build. The older I got the more in-depth and creative these plans and layouts got. I’d kind of given up on being an architect, probably as like a ten-year-old, because I heard it involved a lot of math and I am definitely not a mathematician. I never really sat down to think, ‘maybe it doesn’t require math.’ So when I moved to Boston, I went to art school and I became a bike messenger on the side. Surrounded by all the buildings, I saw my love of illustration and architecture start to filter back into all my doodles and drawings. And I started making these huge, expansive fantasy cities that didn’t exist, but combined all the things I liked about architecture, all the things I liked about cities and design.
Detail from Paracosmos installation
Q: Who/what are your artist or designer inspirations?
A: I tried never to look at artists when I was growing up because I didn’t want to see something that would either be what I was doing or what I wanted to do. But, there were definitely other sources I turned to for inspiration. For the longest time, I never really considered all the other stuff I was interested in to be to influencers but they definitely were. Where’s Waldo, Gary Larsson’s the Far Side Gallery—that simple sort of dark humor with pretty basic illustration, all black and white—made an impression. The Incredible Cross-Sections books and all the How It’s Made series had a big impact on my work too. They are almost all illustrators that did technical books, with interesting cutaways of blown-up drawings or architectural studies, but I didn’t think of them as artists; I was just looking at the books because I liked the pictures. So most of my favorite artists ended up being illustrators.
Q: How would you describe your art?
A: In a word, fun. I am definitely out to try and create an experience through my art. There’s nothing really deep and meaningful about the work besides the fact that it’s just about pure enjoyment. I try to create a fun experience in my imagination that other people can then explore. I create these grand, uninhabited cities that are empty, blank-slate playgrounds for people’s imaginations to run wild. To see people just pouring themselves into the drawing, staring into the wall— I get a lot out of that. A lot of my work is about management of positive and negative space, to keep the viewer’s mind moving through the space. I’m always trying to keep the eye moving so you don’t really get a chance to catch your breath—you’re always prompted to the next little thing.
Q: In this mural for the Sasaki Gallery, you’ve clearly broken from the very traditional rectangle, which you’ve used in other exhibitions—namely Urban Scrawl and earlier Paracosmos shows—what brought you to this new form of expression?
A: Well, it’s not every day I get access to the fabrication studio you have here. The opportunity to just hand a designer at Sasaki a piece of paper that had all these crazy shapes on it and then, a week later, get back all these crazy shapes cut out of wood to paint on was just too good to pass up. I have painted murals that were more abstract in their shape, but being able to take the CNC machine here and try out a certain calculated risk with these sort of awkward shapes allowed me to draw things that fit them specifically. As I progressed, I was seeing things in the shapes before I even started, just thinking, ‘oh, this is going to be a basin; this is going to be a canal system; this area over here is perfect for a tower; this long skinny piece is definitely where I’m going to put a railroad.’ To me, they all started to fit their ideal drawing.
Q: As an art educator, how has interacting with young or aspiring artists impacted your work today?
A: I feel like I draw like a little kid, but a little kid who has an adult’s understanding of composition. I draw all these things that are just simply hedonistic, all about having fun. Being able to teach kids and embrace what kids like about drawing helps me embrace what I like about drawing, because kids don’t really want to sit down and draw a perfect sketch of someone’s face; they’re not super detail oriented or end-result oriented. They’re in the moment. They’re not attached to what happens to a drawing afterwards. Some of these kids will draw amazing things and then walk out of the classroom—I aspire to channel that sort of impermanence into my art and practice. And I prefer that sort of little kid sense of humor over a serious art dialogue.
Q: Where do you see your art going in the future? What areas would you like to explore?
A: I’d really like to get into reproduction. I’d really like to just go back to what I really love about drawing, which is ballpoint pen, that grounding in cheap medium, cheap material, cheap supplies. I think it’s important for art generally to stay affordable because when I first started out I was always disgusted by the idea that art isn’t accessible to even my friends. I can’t just give my work away but I think there’s something missing in the way we buy and sell art, so I’d like to get more into reproduction. I’d also like to see my art become more versatile. I’ve been doing a whole series of nature drawings, a fishing coloring book I published and printed myself. Those drawings are much looser and get out of cities. I’d like to dedicate myself to drawing more than just what I’m comfortable with. I’ve been getting more and more commissions that are outside of my comfort zone, and I hope to continue to get these new opportunities to stretch.
Q: Here at Sasaki, we reflect all the time on the relationship between design and risk. Where have you as an artist pursued risk and how has your work been impacted?
A: I think that every time I sit down to do one of these jobs it’s a calculated risk, because my working style is almost entirely improvisational. When I’m commissioned by someone to do a wall, they don’t get a sketch, they don’t know what it’s going to look like, because I don’t know what it’s going to look like in the end. It’s definitely turned off some clients to my work but it’s also put me in a position to work with the best clients—the ones who understand that risk-reward relationship. They know, looking at my art and looking at the stuff I’ve done, I’m going to roll the dice again here and I’m going to do what I do. It keeps the work evolving in its own way. The style is my style but it’s always changing—I’m always discovering new little things, strange architectural elements that I’m inventing as I go with permanent market on big pieces of expensive wood that I cannot replace or erase. So that alone is very intimidating, but it’s also the fun of it.
Edited for clarity