in conversation... louis bennett

Painter Louis Bennett talks self-doubt, body image and moving away

21st October, 2019

“A lot of my early anxiety came from this feeling of not wanting to grow up - I think that had a relationship with the way my mental health ended up when I moved away from home”

Louis Bennett’s work combines elements of European figurative painting, British satire, modernist avant-garde and pop art. The Manchester-born painter has taken part and exhibited at the prestigious Bloomsbury Festival Art Prize, Bloomberg New Contemporaries and RSA ContemporariesHe studied at Glasgow’s School of art, before a masters degree took him to London’s Slade School of Art. 

We met with Louis Bennett at his studio in Russell Square to chat self-doubt, body image and moving away.

You okay hun?

I’m alright. I’m a little bit hungover, and a bit tired but things are good.

Your work is rooted in European figurative painting, featuring narratives that remix British satirical cartoons with modernist avant-garde and pop art. What is it about these influences that you enjoy?

I enjoy the pop art side of my work because it’s something that can have an immediate impact. It connects to a lot of people’s nostalgia and can carry a political statement quite forcefully. I like the fact that it’s rooted in traditional figurative painting because it’s nice to step into that world and out of the Instagram/Facebook nightmare that we’re all living in - to indulge in something more traditional with a bit more pathos.

What does your creative process look like?

It differs from painting to painting. Sometimes it starts with a political impulse or statement I want to make.

For instance, I made a painting of Tyson Fury about his experiences with racist abuse coming from a gypsy background. We’re both from the same area and I feel very connected to that. I wanted to fight his corner in that respect.

Other times, it starts with a photograph that I might take. It can become more about an aesthetic and a composition than an initial political impulse, although the political seems to find its way in somehow.

The process of composing a painting is usually something that is very fluid, I don't do a lot of preparatory drawing because there has to be some kind of discovery in making the actual piece.

You were part of the prestigious Bloomberg New Contemporaries and RSA New Contemporaries in 2018. What was the selection process like, and how did you feel once you were selected?

It’s a matter of submitting images. It’s judged anonymously by a different group of selectors each year. If they’re interested in your work they’ll look into you. What’s great is that they judge you on your work alone - they don’t know your gender, race, education, who you are or anything.

“The most important thing is that you like your art, and that it’s satisfying you and not someone else”

Being accepted made me feel validated. It was really surreal because all its work had been made in my grandma's basement, and it’s a very weird thing to then see that same work exhibited in both Liverpool and London.

Moving to a new city, particularly to study can be tricky. How did you find moving to GSA in Glasgow and then Slade in London?

I couldn’t deal with it when I first moved to Glasgow, and struggled to make friends. I felt like everyone else understood how to do this, especially as a lot of people had grown up in London and knew how to party and drink, and I was a lot more sheltered than that. I struggled with an eating disorder and depression which slowly went away after my first year.

Moving back home to Lancaster was always going to be a bit of a safe haven for me. I enjoyed it much more than I ever did growing up there, so it was quite a happy time.

London is a weird mix of excitement and difficulty. I was totally freaking out at the amount of stuff there was to do. At times it’s too much and you have to retreat, and that can be difficult. There’s also the constant FOMO, especially when you’re having a night in you still feel like you could be at some insane squat rave in Deptford or something.

How do you approach self-doubt?

I try and use it as motivation. I think a lot of what I do is driven by anxiety in some way. It’s as if you want to make something significant as a cause of anxiety, and you end up searching for that. It can be overwhelming, and most creative people have periods where they’re overcome by it, and I’m no different. There are days where you can’t get out of bed, or you look on Instagram to find all of the other painters you know doing shows, and so you try your best to learn techniques that can be turned into something positive.

The most important thing is that you like your art, and that it’s satisfying you and not someone else.

When pleasing others is in the back of your mind the thing that you make becomes false. You end up making something that’s not true to you, and it becomes a less enjoyable process for that reason. You have to keep yourself most in mind without turning into an egotistical maniac.

It can be difficult not to compare yourself to others. How do you manage this, and do you think there can be a healthy outcome?

I think what you have to reach for is less a sense of competition and one of collaboration. I think in the past I’ve been driven by competition, and you end up fostering bitterness inside which isn’t healthy. It eats at your creativity.

Since moving to Slade there’s been a genuine sense of collaboration and openness, which is actually much closer to competition than you might think, but it ends up being way more fruitful.

When did you first notice your anxiety and depression?

I think when I was about 11 or 12 I started having feelings of freaking out, and not being able to handle social situations. I’d get lost in dark spirals and feel guilty for it, it’s like a loss of innocence that you feel guilty for. I’m not sure if that’s a common experience but that’s how I felt growing up.

A lot of my early anxiety came from this feeling of not wanting to grow up - I think that had a relationship with the way that my mental health ended up when I moved away from home. There was something about leaving a very loving family environment to me that was a painful departure, and with not wanting to grow up this manifested itself in anxiety and an eating disorder and whatever else.

You’ve mentioned that you struggled with an eating disorder during your first two years at university. Could you talk to me about what happened?

In Glasgow it seemed like everyone was already so sorted, and I was kind of lost. It felt like everything was out of control and what I was eating was the one thing that I could control. That came with body dysmorphia and not having a clear image of myself, but really it was about control. There was a comfort in being able to enforce a structure on myself, even if it was a harmful and fucked up structure. I felt totally out of my depth and out of control in my own social life.

“I feel that once you put your thoughts on paper they become less significant in your head and your perspective widens slightly”

It’s something that’s never really spoken about amongst men and it’s maybe worse than ever with the expectation that you’ve got to have some sort of Love Island body shape.

It went through phases, times where I would barely eat anything, and if I did it would be lettuce or an apple, so I don’t know if I would classify it as being completely anorexic because I didn’t have that disgust or revulsion for food that an eating disorder might suggest. It was more about imposing such strict controls, that I ended up eating almost nothing.

Do you ever use art as a form of relaxation or therapy, or is it the opposite in that you struggle to create?

When I’m struggling it doesn’t help to paint as my mental health and painting practice are so interlinked that things can get a little gnarly if I push through and carry on making. It’s usually better not to make anything and to just breathe and get through it, because if I try to create something I become frustrated with myself.

If I'm going through a depressive period, I’ll quite often end up writing down my thoughts, songs or poetry which tend to be a useful relief and way to clarify my thoughts. I feel that once you put your thoughts on paper they become less significant in your head and your perspective widens slightly.

How do you unwind and relax?

It’s something that I struggle with, but gigs are a major boost to my mental health. Everytime I go to a gig I feel nourished in some way, like I’ve had some sort of release. With that, music is a massive thing, listening to music is definitely a coping mechanism.

What album best describes your work?

‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ by The Kinks. I feel that this album shares many common themes with my own work - British history, empire and humour. They also use the pop format for a specific political statement, which is something that I try to do. It’s also an amazing album.

View and learn more about Louis Bennett below: / @louisben1995

words and images: patrick taylor

uoh 2020 — @uok.hun