Mister Ben Presents Art Damage at Fort Gondo This Weekend: "Let's Be Happy Mutants Together"


Mister Ben setting up at Fort Gondo. - DIANA BENANTI
  • Diana Benanti
  • Mister Ben setting up at Fort Gondo.

As the sign says, this weekend the art damaged working class is coming for you. Mister Ben, the affable madman behind the Freezerburn zine, is opening a new exhibit at Fort Gondo on Saturday. There will be hand-drawn cartoons, sculptures, experimental film, vegan pastries, noise and swastikas. Plus, free beer. But no anarchists; they've boycotted the show because Ben spoke out about the Cherokee security camera roguery back in April.

Mister Ben started the zine in 2005. The very first copy went to a homeless man in Chicago; Ben went up there for a show with 100 copies of Freezerburn 1 in his briefcase but was denied entrance to the venue because he wasn't 21. He didn't have anywhere to stay, so he slept on the street in freezing rain, and the homeless man watched over him and gave him nips of whiskey from a flask to keep him warm. "He probably saved my life. He might have been my guardian angel -- they come in all forms."

It's the first gallery show he's curated alone, but his friends and accomplices are all over the walls, from Chizzy Chismo's films to a collage from Mister Ben's mother. The exhibit will run until November 1, but October 8 is the only time you'll be able to see the show in all it's subversive, music and booze-enhanced glory. The event runs from 7 p.m. to midnight. "This is recess," said Mister Ben. "Let's be happy mutants together."

Diana Benanti: How long does it take you to put together the Freezerburn zine?

Mister Ben: On average, it takes four months to make sixteen pages. For this particular show, it took me three months to make 32 pages.

Do you draw everything yourself?

Yeah, they're completely done by me.

That's crazy.

It does require a bit of insanity, especially like, you know, for a prestigious fine art show, you're really just making Xeroxes of cartoons.

If it takes that long, why debut two at once?

Because in this particular instance the two seperate issues have aesthetic differences. One is entirely typewritten. It involves collaged photographs and such, so it's more of a Dada-ist, surrealist collage thing. The other is just basically cartoons, comics and cartoons. It's all hand-lettered and a little cruder, relatively speaking.

Can you give us an idea of the content?

Freezerburn 18.1 is the all comics one, I have a lot of satirical Mad Magazine style stuff, they usually relate back to South City but in a very art damage kind of way. Sort of how a starving artist gets away with whatever they can in St. Louis City on cheaper rent, but while still starving. So there's that kind of satirical thing. 18.2 is just pure experimentation, it's inspired by a lot of fliers around town for punk and hardcore shows, and more the experimental stuff. So one is on the Garfield end of things, the other is more Max Ernst. If that makes any sense.

What does art damage mean to you?

To me it means bringing the danger, at least aesthetically speaking, back into art, as opposed to being completely sanitized and safe, especially on gallery walls where things are usually sanitized and safe. I want to bring a little element of some danger, but also in rollercoaster-fun kind of way. The idea that art can damage you, or force a response out of a person, rather than simply "oh, that looks nice." So, subversion in some kind of context, even if it's on a gallery wall. If you wanna do Garfield cartoon, great, but do it without compromise.

How did you pick the music?

Because of the people I hang out with basically. Some members of Skarekrau Radio are involved, they're playing a collaborative set called Global Distance. These are people I see at shows a few times a week or drink beers with. It's a result of us sitting around thinking, "Hey, wouldn't it be neat if, dot dot dot."

Have you seen the new Chizmo material?

He previewed a little bit of it the last time we hung out, but most of it will be a surprise to me too. He's always filming things. I think he's previewing some raw footage from some of his basement show episodes, called the Glui Gnui Basement Show.

I haven't seen that.

It's very art damaged.

What can you tell us about the rest of the show? The "fine art" specifically?

There's a little bit of irony with the fine art tag. I thought it would be neat to have that on a flier. I wouldn't want to say that my friends aren't fine artists, some of them are more talented than I am...Since I do Freezerburn alone, and I don't do a lot of collaborative magazine editing, I wanted to have some other artists around here who have never been a part of a gallery show or hadn't thought of it before, I wanted to give them a chance to do that. It's all over the map. You have collages, drawings, doodles, sculptures even.

Any familiar names?

I don't think so actually. My mom is involved.

Oh really? Tell us about her stuff.

She's a better artist than I am. She's never shown publicly to my knowledge.

Did you have to do nice things for her to get her to debut?

There was a lot of convincing.

What does she make?

This piece will be a collage of hers, but she's actually a very skilled painter. She's a full-time mom so she doesn't have time to show publicly.

Is that how you got started, by watching her?

Growing up around art, either you want to create art or you want to create something very subversive to begin with. You come from that creative mindset. I suppose that's a big umbrella for the show, these people even if they haven't exhibited, there's a counter-cultural, subversive element about it. Who wants a really typical art show? You get enough of those on a daily basis.

Assuming the, uh, regular art crowd shows up, what do you think the reaction will be?

I hope they're shocked, honestly. The other name for Freezerburn would be A Friendly Bite. The whole idea, I'm not looking to wreck peoples lives, I just want to shake things, at least a little bit. Safety is all too common in the general art world, and we figured it doesn't have to be that way. These are rather counter-cultural times. There's something changing anyway, so I figured why not do it aesthetically too? Why not do it with crude looking cartoons?

Do you really think something is changing or is this another big American disappointment?

Well, we get disappointments on a daily basis, but it's always nice to look back and think, maybe I didn't do something that was entirely disappointing, at least not to somebody else.

Have you been down to OccupySTL at all?

I haven't. Freezerburn doesn't identify itself politically, or if it does it does so in a mocking way. We are certainly not anarchists. To be sure, we identify with any counter-cultural critique or any rebellious germ that's being picked up right now. We certainly would love to see that back. I think we're all in the same boat ultimately.

If you could change one or two things about St. Louis what would they be?

Oh geez, putting me on the spot there. I would say the methodology of communication, this certainly applies to gallery shows as well, it's very easy to say one thing and feel safe in knowing that it's not being truly considered, as it's very easy to look at or read or listen to something and not actually consider it. It's nice to break down a few of those barriers, and hopefully people can walk away from a show having decent conversations about it, or doing some crude cartoons of their own. It doesn't all have to be Salvador Dali, but at least somebody is doing something.

I haven't heard of Stimulus Baking Company, what can you tell us about it?

It's my friend Lauren Ikon -- that's not her real last name -- and she does these really amazing vegan cupcakes and pastries that she'll be giving out for free. All the beer is free, as long as people are hanging out, that's all that matters.

Tell us about the music.

There will be a couple of unnamed noise projects that will join in, but Global Distance, are more so experimental, guitar and drums and no two sets are alike. Kind of like Skarekrau Radio. There's will be a lot of things for sale as well. Wiggpaw (of Skarekrau Radio)'s tape label, CumSun, will have a compilation with some local artists like Dave Stone and Ghost Ice, and we're going to debut a solo cassette tape of mine.

Did you hear they took cassette tape out of the dictionary?

Why would they do that? Just as it becomes relevant again. Just give it twenty years when it becomes irrelevant again, they can put it back in. The Dictionary of Archaic Terms. That's crazy though. They could probably take compact disc out at this point in time.

So it's even more counter-culture of you now, going against the dictionary and all.

[laughs] We're going against the dictionary, just remember that.

How do you think people are going to respond to the show?

It'll either be outright shocking or suggest something shocking. That's not true for all of it, but it's all in good fun. Some of it is rougher than others. It depends on how much people like swastikas I suppose.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.