INTERVIEW: Ben Allen Solo

Pop, button men and nouveau Belfast - Ben Allen explains his carnival of art to Joanne Savage

Ben Allen is a motley, maverick visual artist, a jack-of-all-trades who crosses media with ease. The Belfast artist has variously worked in abstract painting, collage, video art, printmaking and sculpture. He is also known to make off-beat jewellery in aluminium with old coins, monopoly pieces, Scrabble letters and dice cubes. Then there are button men figures, etchings on old vinyl and customized T-shirts, prints of Harland and Wolff, geometric mosaics.

Allen is perhaps best known for his prints of Belfast, artworks based on photographic imagery, coloured or digitally altered to view the city through a new, polychrome, nouveau-pop lens.

The dome of the City Hall is at the centre of an urban vista in teal, aqua, red and hot pink; the gantries in an impressionistic wash of colour: Allen’s souped-up prints reach into the psycho-geography of Belfast and transmutes its greys and beiges into a hip rainbow.

It’s a version of Belfast for the noughties and the teenies, via Warhol’s wacky Factory and its celebration of pop ephemera and psychedelic hues.

Cars, Rolling Stones records, cameras, gadgetry, machinery, musicians: Allen’s most recent prints move grasshopper-like between preoccupations, some of them blokeish and all of them in tune with pop culture.

'Since I got a picture I’d drawn up on the wall at age 11, I knew I wanted to be an artist,' says Ben. 'Sticking to just one art form would be the death of me. I love finding new ways to be creative and to evolve.'

After studying fine art at the University of Ulster – specializing in large abstract works – Allen changed direction just before his degree show and gave all his canvases and paints away. Instead, the artist displayed slide projections, super-8 movies and photo collages. He seems fond of U-turns and unexpected, off-course swerves.

'Everyone was doing abstract paintings at the time and I wanted to move in a different direction, to shake things up a bit. So multimedia stuff appealed. In the 1980s that was pretty uncategorisable on the Northern Irish art scene.'

Allen completed an MA in environmental media at the Royal College of Art in London, and promptly started making abstract movies, Brit art with a twist – 15 years before Hirst and Emin et al.

Then it was collages that grabbed his attention, ripped up pieces of Japanese paper, torn images from the National Geographic with found objects, archaeology, things that had been dug up from the Lord knows where, gold and silver, pieces of old jewellery pinned onto their surfaces.

His mosaic period began with a work decorating the walls of his bathroom. Whole days disappeared as he fiddled with and pieced together the fragments of the pattern – he was immediately hooked, spending hours at his compositions.

Geometric tabletops and traditional mosaic patterns made with broken plates and cubic pieces of stone were Allen’s major interest for over a decade. Much of this was inspired by the Scottish surrealist and 1950s harbinger of pop art, Eduardo Paolozzi. (Think of the mosaic-covered walls of Tottenham Court Road tube station).

Paolozzi too was a jack-of-all-trades, an artist caught between preoccupations and modes. His studio was typically filled with hundreds of found objects, models, sculptures, materials, tools, toys, stacks of books.

Interested in virtually everything, Paolozzi used a variety of objects and materials in his work, including collages, screen prints and art brut figures. His aesthetic sense had humour and irony. It’s easy to see why Allen is led by his artistic example.

Another inspiration is FE McWilliam, the prolific surrealist sculptor from Banbridge. Allen was artist in residence at the FE McWilliam Gallery last year, helping to restore some of the acclaimed sculptor’s striking mosaic pieces from the 1960s.

Ben Allen’s new exhibition, at Creative Exchange Studios on the Newtownards Road, will feature a carnival of old and new work. Hundreds of pieces will be on display, from mosaic to dry-point and intaglio prints on vinyl, plastic and copper, of pulp fiction covers, Hell’s Angels, musicians and views of Belfast. Hand-printed T-Shirts with Mexican Day of the Dead imagery will hang from the walls, with collages from the early 1990s, an army of button men sculptures and bronze pieces.

It forms a jigsaw exhibition, a melting pot of the artist’s finest moments:

'It’s a bit like a circus of works,' says Allen. 'My art is a total conglomeration of things. It’s about obsessions, general pop and is often inspired by all the things I collect – records, CDs, old cameras, toys, coins.

'The main thing I want to get across is that art can be fun and it’s OK to do lots of different things from crafts and textiles to fine art.

'A lot of people assume that artists should chose one area or discipline and specialise in that. I love to chop and change, from mosaic to sculptures made with buttons to prints of Belfast and cars.'

So what’s next for the artist after this sweeping, vaudeville exhibition?

'A week in bed and a full-body massage.'

If you suffer for your art, it’s only fair that you get to bliss-out once the paint’s dry and the maquettes are standing.

Ben Allen Solo opens at Creative Exchange Studios, Newtownards Road on Thursday March 4 from 6-9pm. The exhibition runs until March 27.