CHESTERTOWN - It's been quite a fall for Washington College's newest professor of art, Benjamin Bellas, both on campus and off. In his first semester, he has been teaching fundamentals of visual design and beginning drawing, while planning an interdisciplinary spring course on subversive art. The Kohl Gallery on campus opened its fall season by showcasing work by Bellas and his Art Department colleague Heather Harvey.
In Chicago, the Slow Gallery has extended the run of his well-reviewed show of sculptural art and video through January. And the Flashpoint Gallery in Washington, D.C. is hosting his one-man show "Benjamin Bellas: Losing Something You Never Had" through Dec. 21.
To top it off, the Chestertown resident received a 2012-13 grant from the Franklin Furnace Fund for Performance Art, an organization dedicated to "making the world safe for avant-garde art."
"It has been really incredible," said Bellas. "Between relocating to Chestertown and the various traveling required to complete works and exhibitions, I often found myself losing track of my current geographic location. Of course it's a wonderful problem to have."
Bellas' artworks invite a dialogue with the viewer. Often it begins with a sculptural object whose meaning changes with the addition of new information and context. He said it all began in his grandfather's workshop in western Pennsylvania, near where he grew up. He honed his painterly skills at the University of Pittsburgh, then found his art's true north while interning at the Mattress Factory, a museum of contemporary art in Pittsburgh that is devoted to room-sized environments created by in-residence artists.
"It was an eye-opener," Bellas said. "and it connected the dots for me between the work I enjoyed doing in my grandfather's basement shop and the way art can be made and experienced. It's about establishing a more personal relationship between an object and the viewer. I'm especially intrigued by how content, in the form of the written word, can change our cognition, our way of experiencing an object."
The Slow Gallery show of Bellas' work includes overlapping aerial footage of Chicago taken from two helicopters that performed a ballet in the skies of the city, where he earned his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Bellas said it was inspired by the birth of his son, Archer, now 4, and the "boring ballet of schedules and hand-offs my wife and I fell into as we juggled our work schedules with care of the baby."
Besides the video, there were carefully arranged objects that included a pew from his grandparents' church, a boot with an old spider web inside, a barrel with an image of a waterfall at its bottom and a book with a book mark and a roll of film. It all begins to make sense as the viewer gleans more detail.
The Show at D.C.'s Flashpoint Gallery is based on the life, death and unrealized potential of an uncle the artist never knew, a golden boy named Richard Hunt who bailed out of a Navy plane over the South China Sea in 1966 and was never seen again. An error that incorrectly classified the combat surveillance mission kept Hunt's name off the wall of the Vietnam War Memorial, but his family, led by Bellas' sister, campaigned to rectify the slight. His name was added this past spring.
"While I was growing up, the family really didn't talk about Uncle Richard. He was just the uncle who was lost at sea," said Bellas.
The artist couldn't feel the loss of someone he had never known, but he did begin to appreciate the hole that Richard Hunt left in his family's future, and he began to imagine how his own life might have been different had his uncle lived. Incorporating some of the surviving artifacts from his uncle's life, a photo, a peacoat, maps, news accounts and official reports—the artist adds video and sculpture to create a meditation on absence and illustrate how historical context can invest seemingly mundane objects with emotion. He hopes it encourages the viewer to explore their own issues of memory, absence and the sense of loss over what could have been.
Bellas was one of just 16 emerging artists out of 454 international applicants to receive a 2012-13 Furnace Foundation prize. The $5,000 grants are awarded to fund major new performance-art pieces. Bellas plans to use his to produce a video that explores the current state of airport security.
"I want to fly from LaGuardia to J.F.K.," he said, referring to the two main airports that serve New York City. He suspects that security personnel will be concerned about his unusual itinerary and his lack of baggage other than a camera bag. "I want to explore ideas about what is threatening and how effective our current structure of protection is."