Much has changed in the life and work of artist Heather Benjamin since she began self-publishing zines of her drawings in 2008, but her willingness to chronicle that experience with lacerating linework and relentless emotional candor stays the same. As she puts it, her “experience in [her] own body is still fluctuating between abject and glorious.”
Benjamin began putting out issues of her flagship zine Sad Sex in 2009. A collected edition from Desert Island followed in 2012, with a second and even more accomplished book-length project, Exorcise Book, arriving from Brazil’s A Bohla Editora in 2013. Over that time, the subjects of her illustrations slowly drifted from women sobbing during intercourse (the titular “sad sex”) to female figures poised somewhere between agony, ecstasy, and incandescent rage——mouths contorted into rictus screams, blood and sexual fluids spraying from wounds and orifices, hair sprouting like out-of-control vines. Throughout, her art defined “explicit” not merely as the graphic depiction of sex and sexuality, but as a commitment to being upfront about the nature of these things——their complexity, their magnetic appeal, their physical facts, their potential for repugnance and trauma.
But having honed her approach to perverse perfection, Benjamin has taken her new work to a place that’s calmer, quieter, and no less revealing. The 25-year-old Providence-based artist’s new book Romantic Story——an accompaniment to her show “Hard Feeling Girl” at Steam Gallery in Bushwick, NY last month——features little of the screaming and gushing for which she’s known. Instead, it repurposes big skies of the Great American Nowhere and the clinching couples of comics’ romance tradition to depict women alone with their thoughts——as formidable an emotional opponent as any in the flesh. The fluctuation “between abject and glorious” is as clear as ever. And as Benjamin tells Adult, this Story reflects her own.
Romantic Story wrestles directly with the iconography of romance comics and illustration. How long has that material been an interest or concern of yours?
Heather: To the extent that it’s taken up so much of my consciousness this is a recent development, though I was always drawn to the classic romance comics. I loved and related to all those panels of girls throwing themselves down on their beds to weep because Johnny brought another girl to the dance.
It wasn’t until sometime last year, when I started first thinking about and sketching for Romantic Story——which was unnamed when I began working on it——that I started incorporating the romance comics into my work. I knew I wanted to convey a sense of nostalgia and reminiscence, to work with ideas about jealousy and ownership, and I wasn’t sure how I wanted to do that other than literally depicting women in varying states of sorrow. Working directly from some of the romance comics to incorporate embracing couples into the compositions seemed like a good way to get at what I was thinking about.
I got really into this sort of equation for a composition that occurs in literally almost every single romance comic: A couple embraces in the background, and in the foreground, a woman turns to look at them, usually crying. It was the same composition I had kind of already been creating, framing couples in levitating windows that hung in the desert environments where my characters exist——representing the act of getting lost in your own thoughts, harping on the past, and obsessively envisioning things that scarred or traumatized you.
Given the cover of Romantic Story this is a weird thing to say, but this seems less sexually explicit than your past books.
Heather: I don’t think that's weird at all! I view this work as way less sexually explicit, too——which is funny, because there are still gaping vaginas everywhere. I guess I'm just desensitized to that. But there's not really any penetration or actual sexual acts going on, which is unlike my older work. It has to do with what I was saying before, actually, how my work tends to mirror what’s going on in my personal life. Honestly, at the time when I was making work like Sad Sex, I was mirroring exactly what I was feeling, what I was going through in my life: dealing with different partners, different people, trust tissues, the different dynamics of being single and feeling very alone and isolated and messy regardless of whether I was getting some or not. It's hard to put it into words; I guess that’s why I don't too often, and why I was making work about it instead. It sounds dumb to me when I try to explain it, but when I was making work that included fucking, it's because in my life I was dealing with emotions and complications as a result of fucking.
Now I’m making less explicit, less fully pornographic work, because it’s not the dynamics of fucking that I'm grappling with on a daily basis. I’m less interested in how other people made me feel as a result of being involved with them——unlike in Sad Sex, when I was using text in some pieces, like “you make me feel special” or “I masturbate thinking about your boyfriend,” making really blatant statements about how relations between myself and various people affected my self-perception and my experience. I’m now more interested in my own singular experiences with, and within, myself, not those that are explicitly being generated by other people in the present. It’s more introspective and nostalgic, and less about depicting something generating panic and emotion in the moment. This obviously still has a lot to do with sexuality and physicality, but less to do with sexual acts, unless they’re being performed on oneself, or are being looked back on in reflection and anxiety.
In comics we’re not used to applying this term to non-narrative work, but you’ve always been candid about the autobiographical nature of your drawings.
Heather: I have a hard time making work about things I don’t know about; it feels dishonest and thin. Not that I have an issue when other people do that. I think. [Laughs] I just have a hard time with it, because I'm used to making work purely about how I feel, what I've been feeling, what I've experienced, rehashing it, evaluating it, whatever. Sad Sex was completely about what I was going through personally at the time, every single issue. Exorcise Book was more of an abstraction——less literal, but still coming from that place, my own experiences. When I was making that book, I was taking way too much Adderall, not eating, not taking care of myself, having panic attacks, having bad relationships, having to go to the hospital. It was an awful time. The images are disjointed and symbolic and muddled, mixed in with images of women hurting themselves. There’s a lot of bleeding. I have trouble looking at that book now because it reminds me of how I felt during that time.
When I was making work that included fucking, it was because I was dealing with emotions and complications as a result of fucking.
Romantic Story is just as personal as all the work I've made before it. It's the physical result of me allowing myself to obsess and analyze and pick at my most recent crop of negative emotions in my life, which has included less panic and more introspection, jealousy, body dysmorphia, confusion about trauma and intimacy and trust.
Your new pieces are framed with stars, dots, constellation lines. There's a sense of literal space here, whereas much of what was in Sad Sex or Exorcise Book had a wall-of-sound effect that all but forced viewers back. That visual change is as interesting to me as the content itself.
Heather: My drawing style has morphed a little bit every couple of years, but it made its biggest change with this body of work. My work has started to be a little less panicky because I personally have started to be a little less panicky. As I moved away from being a super freakout-y overgrown teenager, I moved away from screaming figures and spilling fluids. Also——I think this is really important——I'm in a different stage of my life hormonally now than I was five years ago, so my experience and expression of my female experience is totally different for that reason as well. That stuff changes my rendering style as well as my subject matter.
The introspective and surreal desert zone where I envision a lot of my characters existing is a dream state or mental state that encompasses a big sky similar to those that you experience in some parts of the U.S., like Montana or the Dakotas——far away from light pollution, and with such a huge scope that it's simultaneously overwhelming and calming, like the physical manifestation of experiencing an existential crisis. It's huge and beautiful and sparkling and aesthetically pleasing as long as I allow myself to exist underneath it, just enjoying it without questioning it too much. As soon as you start really thinking about what it is, how it's constructed, and your relativity to it, it's dizzying and panic-inducing, but also meditative and religious. It's kind of cathartic, but also futile and hilarious to me, to attempt to summarize all of that in basic linework iconography of stars and planets and constellations. Regardless, it makes sense to me for my characters to exist in that space. I know what it means to me.