Ever wondered what the neighbors are doing over there? Inspired by curiosity and meticulous scale models, Amy Bennett’s paintings imagine what’s happening on the other side of the fence. It’s as though hidden cameras and peeping toms are out to show you how charming and compelling other people’s family life can be.
Amy Bennett was born in Maine in 1977. She works in Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband, cartoonist and designer, Jonathan Bennett. Her show “Neighbors” is currently on view at Richard Heller Gallery. She is also represented by Linda Warren Gallery and Galleri Magnus Karlsson, where she will have a solo show in September 2007.
I read that you built a model of a neighborhood and Neighborhoods are paintings of that model.
Building a model allows me to three-dimensionally recreate a setting that exists only in my mind. I began the neighborhood [model] by collecting model railroad houses and repainting them and assembling some new structures myself from architectural modeling supplies. I then played with various configurations on a large sheet of paper until I recognized what I wanted. I traced the layout onto a 6’ x 7’ sculpted foam landscape, wired each house and lamppost for lighting, and set to work making the diorama look as realistic as possible. I collected cars and figures, and made dozens of trees with wire and foam, carved an in-ground swimming pool, painted mailboxes and picnic tables, and strung string from one telephone pole to another. The process involved weeks of crafting, but it gave me time to really consider the nature of each property; who lived there, what they did, and what they’d been through.
Your work is sometimes at eye level and sometimes from a bird’s eye view. How do you decide what point of view to paint from?
Whatever moment and feeling I’m trying to capture dictates the point of view. Obviously, point of view can amplify a sense of confrontation or belonging or isolation or voyeurism in a picture. Many of my paintings are depicted from the vantage point of a passerby, or from a neighbor’s window, but, as you’ve noted, many scenes are viewed from overhead. An overhead view is like an omniscient narrator in that it privileges the viewer to more information than they would normally have. It also heightens the sense that you’re seeing something you’re not supposed to see, while reminding you of the artificiality and “toyness”(toyishness?) of what you’re seeing.
Also, I decided to work with a consistent scale for all of the images I made from my model neighborhood, with figures shy of an inch tall. So, if the narrative requires me to include several houses in an image, the painting needs to be on the larger side and have a more distant vantage point. On the other hand, my interiors are tiny, the smallest being 1.5” x 1.75” because there is not much space or environment surrounding the figure.
Are these paintings influenced in any way by neighborhoods you’re familiar with?
The neighborhood depicted in my paintings is a fictional place. It began in my mind as a vague assemblage of neighborhoods and houses I’d been in [when I was] growing up in Maine. I was picturing a place that might have sprouted out of subdivided farmland. [I imagined] a variety of architecture, but mostly modest old construction that was situated on generous properties with plenty of breathing room, but that was still close enough for neighbors to catch something they might not mean to see when looking out their windows.
When I was constructing the model and imagining its residents, I based a few houses/families on people I’ve known. For instance, one house is inspired by the last home my grandparents shared together, and another is based on their house when they were younger, raising a family, and what I imagine their lives were like. It’s kind of funny that they are neighbors with older versions of themselves.
All of your paintings seem to have a backstory or present an elaborate scene. Are the scenes and stories of your work inspired by events in your life, or are they invented?
Likewise, some of the scenes depicted in the paintings are loosely based on things I’ve experienced or witnessed. But, I would never be comfortable directly illustrating my own experience. I’d feel too exposed and bored. Painting is more of a way for me to process moments that have stayed with me. That’s another extremely useful benefit of the model, even when I’m working with material that’s a little too close to the heart, it becomes something new and workable when it is translated through my phony, little reality. So whether the initial inspiration for an image comes from my life or something I’ve read or my imagination, it all becomes a fiction.
I love the drama and humor of Evening News and Exposure. What’s happening in these paintings?
Thank you. I enjoy making images ranging from the hyper-dramatic to the mundane and luckily there’s room for humor across the spectrum. A newsworthy drama has occurred in Evening News, where a camera crew spotlights a reporter on the lawn of a dark house. While the lighting is similarly dramatic in Exposure, the scenario itself is much more mundane: a naked woman peeks through a fence at her neighbor’s property, where a couple is being photographed on the porch. Even if I have a specific story in mind for a painting I try to leave it open-ended enough for the viewer to develop his or her own narrative. It’s no fun if there’s not a bit of mystery in the painting, both for the viewer and myself.
Suburban living seems different from city life because in cities people are forced to live on top of each other, but in the suburbs there’s supposedly privacy. Are these homes and lives really private?
Privacy may be an illusion no matter where you live. What I find most captivating is when the uninhibited private life escapes the boundaries of the home and is overheard through apartment floorboards or witnessed across lawns or through a lit window. Many of my paintings offer these kinds of glimpses, and the viewer is left to elaborate on the fragment.
What do you think is the draw of suburban life for so many people?
Everyone has to find a balance between space and community, convenience and affordability. Plus, everyone has different priorities at different times in their lives, so I can see lots of reasons for people to be attracted to the suburbs. Believe it or not, it’s not the suburbs in particular that interest me, but rather relating the dramas of people living in close proximity. In the past I have made paintings of people living in adjacent apartments and I also did a series on one rural household. I enjoy the juxtaposition and density of the stories of so many lives coexisting. I have the same fascination with a book of short stories. In fact, Raymond Carver has been a big influence. The cartoonist, Chris Ware, has done mind-blowing work exploring the concept as well.
What about personal drama and family life interests you?
I have been depicting people in and around the home because that is where people let their guard down and perhaps reveal their most authentic selves. People with some common traits committed to living under the same roof, day in and day out, trying (or not) to get along, make for fascinating stories. The more anecdotes of family life that are revealed to me, the more filled with wonder and inspiration I become at the richness and messiness and beauty of it all.