Bernard “Ben” Banville’s life sounds as if it was an unfettered celebration of creativity. Born in Quebec, for many years Banville made his home in Greenfield. He was a musician, a photographer, and an artist who spent years on the Pioneer Valley artscape developing and refining his talents. In a photo taken prior to his death last year, Banville is a gray bearded gentleman with salt and pepper hair and a slightly mischievous glint in his eye. He looks as if he has some stories to tell, and given time and opportunity, he might regale you with the adventures of an artist whose self-expressions grew larger and larger to capture the expansion of his thoughts and experiences.
Banville’s friend, Christopher Willigham, adjunct professor of Visual Arts at Holyoke Community College, says, “Ben was an extraordinary talent, a contagious wit, and a generous friend. He lived from the center of his art — a continuous, indivisible personal mythology that animated his trickster spirit, and imbued his life with passionate meaning.”
With such an intimate understanding of Banville, Willingham is a fitting curator for Poste Nebuleux (Nebulaic Station), an exhibit that memorializes and celebrates the life and art of Ben Banville. Poste is a retrospective that spans Banville’s nearly 40 year career — from 1982 until his death in Ashby in 2017 at the age of 66. His work has been exhibited widely throughout the Pioneer Valley and this exhibition is a splendid final accomplishment.
At its heart, Poste Nebuleux is a beautiful distillation of a lifetime of work defined by love and loss. In August 2011, most of Ben Banville’s artwork was destroyed in the flood waters of Tropical Storm Irene. Irene ravaged the East Coast and dumped 8.5 inches of rain on Shelburne Falls; the waters of the Deerfield River swelled and raged through the streets destroying homes and businesses, including Banville’s studio. This exhibition on display at Holyoke Community College’s Taber Art Gallery is, therefore, a collection of works culled from Banville’s patrons including those who knew and loved him. The added knowledge of nature’s capricious theft of Banville’s works makes this exhibition all the more poignant; coupled with his sudden death, each piece on display becomes more urgent, more precious.
Holyoke Community College’s Taber Art Gallery, is a simple, rectangular space with low-tiled ceilings and pedestrian pot and track lighting. It is housed on the second floor of the Donahue Building and is adjacent to the college’s library. It’s the kind of space that could easily be encroached upon by a bustling student body that congregates and studies just outside its doors. But the gallery is quiet and solemn and dutifully recedes into the background, allowing the art to to take center stage. Student docent Lourdes LeBron was on hand to answer any questions and proved to be a valuable and capable ambassador in the absence of gallery director Amy Johnquest.
Poste Nebuleux is an aesthetically beautiful installation by every measure. It is ordered chronologically which allows viewers to acclimate themselves to the various tableaux that move right to left. Beginning with a sizable group of framed prints and postcards, Banville’s youth glows with idealism and curiosity. In the structured nonsense of these Dada-inspired black and white studies, Banville explores the early twentieth century movement which challenged the very definition of what constitutes art. Banville filtered this genre through personal letters and photos that makes his early phase self-centered in the best possible way. He manages to personalize a genre that can feel very impersonal.
As he matures, Banville’s works grow in size and complexity. From the huge 1982-89 soapstone on masonite series entitled Eros Apocolyptica, to his intriguing foray into luminous binary photography in the early 2000s, Bamville’s creative evolution takes flight. As the decade progressed, he moved to framed assemblages and three dimensional standing and hanging installations (which include some Dada influences). At this point, Banville’s works come alive and serve as a formidable acknowledgment of creative maturity. There is a remarkable confidence in his later works, which Willingham describe as, “profound and moving sculptural installations commemorating the Holocaust.”
Banville’s retrospective ends with a 2016 series of smaller encaustic paintings. Heavily textured with wax and pigment, these tonally subdued studies serve as a coda to the tumult of social, emotional and intellectual growth. From his early Dada-inspired mail art to his gracefully executed installations and paintings, Banville’s varied body of work maintains threads of consistency, but never stagnates. Rather, this collection represents the stylistic migrations of a lifelong artist. Creative longevity tends to hop scotch across the artistic landscape and sometimes ends abruptly, as in Banville’s case. But Poste Nebuleux manages to embrace this abrupt end with a satisfying sense of completion.
Post Nebuleux is on view at the Taber Art Gallery at Holyoke Communty College until February 22 and is open to the public. Hours are Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. during regular school sessions. 303 Homestead Ave., Holyoke. Contact Amy Johnquest, director at (413) 552-2614.