Ben Skinner chews Thrills gum. The nostalgic Canadian candy is kitschy to the core, the wistfulness extending from the classic purple-and-yellow box straight into that puckering, soapy rosewater flavouring. The packaging proudly declares “It Still Tastes Like Soap!” exhibiting a self-awareness that makes taking a piece feel like accepting a childish dare.
Thrills is by no means a signature of visual artist Skinner, yet the presence of the gum at his Vancouver Railtown studio fits right in with his slick, design-led practice. With thick-rimmed plastic glasses and a Coca-Cola branded t-shirt, even Skinner himself blends right in with the resin-heavy, often text-based pieces that he has become known for.
The creative, who also serves as art director for local clothing company Aritzia, employs those same kinds of visual marketing techniques to interventions within the gallery space. An exemplary piece is his 2016 wall vinyl project Kiss Me Flow Chart at Vancouver’s Winsor Gallery (now a spaceless gallery known as Winsor Art Projects). The flowchart—the piece exists also as individual screen prints—is laid on top of massive blue vinyl lettering that reads “KISS ME,” while the map offers a variety of circumstances and precursors that read initially like clichés (kiss me: when: no one is looking) but also could have been said in real, dramatic moments (kiss me: like: it is your last chance). “I’m drawn to phrases that people can relate to and that feel familiar,” Skinner explains. “Maybe you’ve said it yourself or you’ve heard it being said.” His work exists in this place where clichés can occasionally ring true, based on the very fact that life itself is sometimes histrionic.
Skinner holds a bachelor of fine arts from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design and a master’s in art and technology from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; it was during his time in Chicago that he began working with text pieces within the context of graffiti—yet without touching a spray paint can. “I was really poor when I was a student there, so I was making art that was free or really inexpensive to make,” Skinner recalls. “And they had all this scrap vinyl that you could use, it was all free, so I started doing these public text interventions where I would write a short little phrase in Helvetica all-caps, and I’d put it in my bag and place it somewhere in my travels around the city.” Chicago at the time had very strict graffiti laws, making it illegal to even purchase a can of spray paint within the city limits—so where graffiti may have existed, instead Skinner’s vinyl phrases remained, as they were less invasive to the scrubbed urban aesthetic. “It was a way to put a type of graffiti mark that was disguised as advertising, so it stayed up,” he says. “I’d put them on abandoned storefront windows, phrases like: ‘Somebody used to love this place’ on an abandoned children’s store or, ‘I fell in love here once.’”
Skinner approaches much of his text-based work with a materialist’s eye; his pieces are often led by the consequences of his applications. “A Heart Makes a Bad Hula Hoop” is written in blue neon and backed by mirror, giving a dizzying, hypnotic effect; 1000 Pantone Colours, 1000 Piece Puzzle is made from exactly that, showing his knack for being a real designer’s artist. Skinner’s most prized possession seems to be a small desk in his studio that holds a project he calls 2 inch solid cubes consisting of two-inch cubes in various materials. “I’ve got over a hundred now—foams, waxes, metals, some stone and mineral,” he says with a collector’s zeal. Often there’s an archivist sensibility to his work, in which Skinner’s interest in words and material come together to not only make experiments, but to hold contemporary observations worthy of noting. In a new piece entitled 1000 Shades of Grey, the artist archives a 1,000-shade gradient from white to black, each Crayola crayon receiving its own name from the artist. Grimey Headphones, Goth Barista, Vapexhale—the work is successful not only for the fun of locating and discovering each of the named colours, but because there is a clear voice within the piece.
This voice of Skinner’s work is consistently strong, yet it leaves enough room for others to step in and find themselves. “Sometimes, it’s interesting enough as a found phrase and I appropriate or borrow it and use it,” Skinner says. “‘Show me with your arms how much’ is one: you imagine as a kid holding out your arms. That’s a phrase that I can’t say that I coined or own now, but because I’ve done some prints with it, I feel really attached to it.” Words and phrases themselves become part of who we are, how we think about ourselves, how we tell the world about ourselves—not too different from a slogan on a t-shirt, a billboard, a soda can, heck, even a pack of gum.
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