Ben Morgan-Cleveland

Ben Morgan-Cleveland on the machinations of language

Ben Morgan-Cleveland, A, 2019, unique C-print mounted to Sintra, 18 x 39".

The New York–based artist Ben Morgan-Cleveland is perhaps best known for co-owning the Brooklyn gallery Real Fine Arts, which closed last year. His work has been exhibited at Shoot the Lobster, Eli Ping Frances Perkins, 15 Orient, Greene Naftali, and elsewhere. His upcoming solo show, “Gallery with Words,” will be on view at Kai Matsumiya in New York from March 22 through April 27, 2019. Here, Morgan-Cleveland discusses the sculptures he’s been making in the commons of a New York City park.
I’VE BEEN MAKING WORDS out of branches in a quiet part of Prospect Park. There’s a lot of rearranging, an attempt to strip them down from the usual structures of communication and grammar. Words are an ancient technology, and today language feels extremely co-opted—even these sculptures become branded with connotations. Things that seem neutral aren’t.

For this project, I wanted each word to stand on its own, both literally and figuratively, so you could think about them as objects, something that can break apart and fall down, as they do. Sometimes the park patrollers push them over, and I have to make new ones. WAY was originally WAS—right now there are also IF and LET. I didn’t want to choose words that were leading in any way, but I just go with what comes to mind when making them—they kind of write themselves, and certainly all the subconscious influence from advertisements and day-to-day life seep in.

Excerpts from an interview with Ben Morgan-Cleveland.

This part of the park is not really a family area—it’s more a cruising zone, so it’s usually just one or two guys walking around solo, searching, looking really carefully. I chose it because it’s peaceful and there’s less traffic here. It’s nice to be outside, the material is free, and the passersby aren’t necessarily people walking through a gallery looking for art. Running the gallery Real Fine Arts for so long, from 2008 to 2018, I got urges to get outside of that context a little bit. A gallery is a contained thing, and you’re often communicating with the same ten, fifty, maybe a hundred people, but it doesn’t have to be that way, and I find the relationship between inside and outside often coming up in my work.

I’ve made a pinhole camera to take photographs of the words, which are what will be shown at Kai’s. I originally made the camera to document my show at a long-running, unnamed space in Chinatown this winter, where I showed my dad’s collection of antique clocks that were all made from 1835 to 1840, mostly in Connecticut, upstate New York, and Pennsylvania. They were early American, pre–Industrial Revolution, mass-produced items that no longer needed to be imported from Germany or Switzerland or England. It was a very specific moment in America, when these serious technologies became cheap enough so that non-elites could buy them. Those pieces were also about the process of stripping down to show what was important to me—we took the faces off the clocks to show the gears that power the ticking and the movements inside, to make visible the machinery that’s running them.

I wouldn’t do this words project in the woods in Massachusetts, where I grew up. I’m not trying to appeal to some hiking, outdoors-lifestyle aesthetic or some Germanic notion of the sanctity of the forest and nature. It’s important that the project is in New York, in a public space in the city, where there are a lot of different people and audiences around to see it. I’m not trying to make populist work, and it’s not intended to be graffiti, but I like the idea of a random person walking in the park being able to encounter it, unexpectedly.