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Immanence and Revelation: The Art of Ben Frank Moss  

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2008
Joshua Chuang (Class of 1998), Assistant Curator of Photographs, Yale University Art Gallery

The following is an excerpt from Joshua Chuang’s introductory essay to the forthcoming exhibition catalogue Immanence and Revelation: The Art of Ben Frank Moss, titled “Call and Response: The Life and Work of Ben Frank Moss.”

To behold the work of Ben Frank Moss is to encounter a fiercely personal approach to the visual life—one taken up in response to the call of private revelation rather than for popular acclaim. For this reason, the paintings, drawings, prints, and collages Moss has steadfastly produced during his career as an artist cannot be traced conveniently within the general narrative of art history over the past forty years. His distinctive efforts to find form for the ineffable are not hidebound by any particular school or ideology; they are rooted instead in a more fundamental pursuit shared by a long and diverse genealogy of artists, poets, and composers: “a longing to be held, captivated by a spiritual force— something unseen but sensed.”(1)

Robert Henri once remarked that “for an artist to be interesting to us, he must be interesting to himself,” a notion to which Moss has duly subscribed.(2) Although he engages in the vocabulary of abstraction, his compositions originate in specific memory and concrete experience. Moss is fond of relating anecdotes from a life keenly observed, citing them as evidence that enduring truths can come from the most unexpected sources. One such story involves his wife Jean’s first-time encounter with a precocious seven-year-old neighbor who proceeded to introduce herself unprompted and show a rock she had been using to chip away at another rock. Curious, Jean inquired if she planned to shape the rock into an arrowhead, to which the young girl replied: “No, I let the rocks decide what they should be.”

The story seems an apt metaphor for the way Moss has carried out his own life and work. At the core of his evolving practice lies a fervent regard for the mystery of creation. He is careful not to rely too heavily on his obvious facility for drawing, opting to approach each blank surface without preconception and with the anticipation of unexpected adventure. To this end he has produced compositions that lay bare the process of their making. Scrutiny of their richly textured surfaces may reveal evidence of entire areas erased or scraped away and then reworked, but seldom does a finished piece feel belabored. For Moss, artmaking is an endeavor that requires the courage to hold still enough to reflect on life’s vicissitudes and the willingness to work on the edge of failure. Because of this, whether endowed with the deep, lush tones of charcoal or the luminous hues and sensuous texture of oil paint, his art carries the layered history of a palimpsest and the distilled intensity of personal revelation. His most successful pieces exhibit the startling immediacy of a “held dream . . . a poetic gateway to an inner experience.”(3)

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