Ben’h Usry enters art history
Walking into artist Ben’h Usry’s Riverside home, one is confronted with a few highlights from a lifetime of artwork. The dining room glows because of the wall-sized gold-leaf monochrome painting leaning against the east wall, while the living room has excerpts from Usry’s newer Florida Water Series stacked about, and also his American Icon suite—bacon and eggs as symbols of American ideals. His is a home devoted to art; a place that reflects his deep engagement in a thirty-five-year art practice.
The artist is soft-spoken and prone to laugh easily, dressed in a sweater vest, collared shirt, and khakis he is a consummate gentleman, understated and offhandedly elegant. And though it is clear he is uncomfortable discussing himself, he is obviously proud of his career. “I have always been influenced in my work by what was going on in the world at the time…I wanted my work to reflect my life.” For the artist, that reflection has taken him through pattern, abstraction, aerials, Rothko-influenced visual koans (his 12-Step series), and water…both ruined and recovered.
In a recent New Yorker article, art dealer David Zwirner was quoted as saying, “One of the reasons there’s so much talk about money is that it is so much easier to talk about than the art.” Indeed, the valuation, sale and resale of works of art can be a shady business at best, and at worst, the kind of double-dealing underhandedness reserved for ponzi schemers. In that same article, Kenny Shachter—a London-based dealer who is famous for his Facebook diatribes—was quoted as saying: “[In the art world] You get stabbed in the front, not in the back, and then you go out to dinner.”
At its upper echelons, the art world is famously hard to penetrate. The secondary market, which can end up being the force that really defines an artist’s career, is confusing and contradictory and almost always guarantees record-breaking headlines when names like Bacon and Basquiat are invoked. So when it comes time for a piece to be sold again, it is important that the work have provenance and lineage—it helps keep things less crooked.
That’s where the website AskART comes in. A web-based company that has been accumulating data since the 1970s, AskART started computerizing those records in 1983. Now, it is a subscription service that tracks artists’ biographies, auction data, and images in an attempt to facilitate research and dialogue. It does not buy, sell, auction or inventory artworks. According to its website, it is “The Artists’ Blue Book” and as far as Usry is concerned, it does two things: “It places me in art history, and will allow my work to be auctioned off at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. If the art/artist isn’t on that website, he/she/it won’t even be considered,” he says.
However, getting listed on the site isn’t a simple matter. Leigh Murphy, an artist and good friend of Usry’s comments, “It’s wicked hard to get listed there for exactly the reason you’d suspect. It’s not a place for the majority of artists who are amateurs, no matter how ambitious, and they do not want to list anyone who does not have a rock solid reputation and proven marketability.” She goes on to explain that she’s been aware of the site for several years now, and her own inquiries revealed that the site carefully watchdogs who gets in, and in Usry’s case (and he confirmed it), a Jacksonville-based independent appraiser entered his information.
In discussing the implications of the AskART listing, Alan Ransdell, the aforementioned appraiser, notes, “[The company] has its own team of professional experts to edit and make final decisions on a listing (which can be declined). It can take several months to get approved and listed but sometimes they will decline to list the artist after they review the submission.” However, the appraiser says once an artist passes this litmus test, “information on the artist then is readily available to appraisers, auctioneers, scholars and historians for their use when needed to place value or write articles about them.”
He also addresses the artist’s biography as a hugely important part of an artist’s arsenal, “when it is written correctly it always adds value to an artist’s work so that the people who buy and collect the artist’s work can better relate to what their art is all about.” Considering Usry specifically he comments, “I have known Ben’h Usry over the years through his art installations, exhibits I attended, and from the Art Celebration Group he co-founded.” Ransdell continues, “His Twelve Step Paintings prints have been acquired internationally and this has contributed and enhanced his importance as an artist. [And] I am also aware of several major collections—including Haskell—that have his work.”
Usry thinks that this renewed interest in some of his earlier works might be because of his fruitful relationship with Jacqueline Holmes. Holmes was a powerhouse in Jacksonville, and with her efforts married to his own, Usry was able to get his work into large corporate collections. “You know, corporations were really interested in building their collections, and the ’70s through the ’90s was a wonderful period,” he recalls. “Everybody prospered.” The artist also goes on to note that corporate collecting was a big part of what helped to build an international career, “I was with names that were so much bigger than mine,” he says with a smile, “it really helped.”
For Ransdell, Usry is more than a singular artist–he is an activist in the community, and a living link to history. His role with Art Celebration gives him important insight into notable Jacksonville artists Charlie Brown and Memphis Wood. “Along with Ben’h Usry I believe these artists share a rich history in the roots of the early and present major art movements of Jacksonville, Florida. This is why I am working with him…making sure the history about the group does not become forever lost.”
Nick Paumgarten, the author of the New Yorker article with the memorable “money” quote also said this: “Art is transportable, unregulated, glamorous, arcane, beautiful, difficult. It is easier to store than oil, more esoteric than diamonds, more durable than political influence.” It is an apt description of humanity’s enduring connection with art. And because of that fascination, Usry says, “It’s nice to know that that which you devoted your whole life to doesn’t fade into oblivion.”
For more information on Ben’h Usry, visit www.twelvestepprints.com.
Article written by Madeleine Peck Wagner