Artist Spotlight | Robert Mace Bent

The first thing you see at Robert Mace Bent’s web site is not his best new painting, but a crooked shot of his studio (as if it were a 60’s Batman villain lair), cluttered with stacks of paintings on paper and canvas in various stages of completion. I think this says something worth investigating further.

So I visited him under the slanting eaves of his third floor attic studio in Turners Falls, MA, to see what I could find out. Robert paints mainly abstracts in oil.

Robert Mace Bent’s studio in Greenfield, MA.

JEFF: How did you choose the photo for your home page?

ROBERT: I thought that a view of inside of my space might be a way to make a better connection with people. I don’t know if it’s a mistake that I do things like that: on my Instagram, I’ll show family pictures, sometimes grandchildren, a walk in the woods, and then paintings. I don’t know if that’s confusing or if people want insights into your daily life.

Egon’s Rose – oil & acrylic on canvas, 12″ x 12″, 2018. (Robert Mace Bent)

What is it you want to achieve? Do you have a particular artistic goal? Or goals about sales or exhibitions?

Definitely I would like to exhibit my work more. A small museum or gallery, or getting into a bigger city like Boston or New York or Chicago. Not because I think my art is wonderful. It’s partly ego massage, but I think I want my time and commitment to it to be recognized. If people buy my work that’s great, but I don’t make my art to be particularly sell-able. I want to make what I want to make.

Most important is that it reveals something about me – to myself. It’s like plumbing myself, trying to get insights into who I am and what I’ve got. I don’t know if this is unusual: I see the work that I do, whether it’s abstract or figurative, as a self portrait. In the sense that it’s “how I see”.

oil on canvas, 2021. (Robert Mace Bent)

I don’t think I’ve heard it put that way before: plumbing the depths of yourself.

The things that interest me the most are the bizarre revelations that come out of some people’s work. If you’re familiar with Joan Snyder: her work gets a lot of acclaim, it’s interesting work, but it’s not aesthetically really beautiful, I don’t think. It’s kind of messy, it looks unfinished and rough on the edges. And I especially like that, because maybe it’s symbolic of what artists see in the world. Living as a work in progress. Not to sound deeply philosophical.

Even a realist artist like Egon Schiele, who painted figures and had an overt treatment of sexuality, his work was rough and unfinished. Because I think he didn’t really understand, any more than anybody else does, what sexuality might be all about. That’s what’s interesting about art to me.

oil on canvas – 48″ x 48″, 2021. (Robert Mace Bent)

So art is about revealing. Is that related to why you sometimes include works in progress on your web site?

It’s just another way to open yourself up to view. I don’t object to the idea of people looking at what I think is in progress and saying, oh, he should have stopped there.
How important is the viewer’s reaction?

I’m always surprised when people respond or see things that I never imagined. In a way, the maker is blind to the work. I once had a person stand and stare at a painting for 5 or 10 minutes, and I thought “what the hell are they seeing in there?!” That was great.

oil on canvas, 2021. (Robert Mace Bent)

How did art become something that you spend a major amount of time on?

In the early 90s I went to this figure drawing class: classical music was playing, the lights were perfect, the subject was still, and people were into it. And thought, wow, this is an accepted kind of way to express yourself, I want to do this! It was kind of exciting.

But actually, before practicing law for 26 or 27 years, I had spent a semester at art school (Swain, now part of UMass Dartmouth). I didn’t think I was getting what I wanted – they didn’t teach how to use the tools of art. So I went to law school.

acrylic on paper, 24″ x 18″, 2019. (Robert Mace Bent)

Do you see your abstract and figure paintings as separate things?

Yes, I think so. But I just discovered the figurative work of Tracy Emin and I think that’s something I’ve been trying to push towards for a long time. If I had the materials and time to make more work that looked abstractly figurative, that could move them a little closer together. But right now there’s a big space between them, and I’d rather be less split as a maker. I don’t have the skill yet I don’t think.

Do you use a reference for figure paintings, or is it from your imagination?

I reference drawings, memory, photographs but I prefer to work with models. I usually work with a model for an hour or two. Then I still have drawings and memory to reference, but the painting takes over, if you know what I mean.

ink & acrylic on paper, 40″ x 30″, 2017. (Robert Mace Bent)

Are your actual abstracts purely from imagination? Sometimes I think they can resemble a floral arrangement, or some kind of pattern.

This is what I mean when I say I’m “plumbing”. I usually start by making random marks. It’s like throwing down a challenge to myself: how do you build something balanced out of it? I see other styles of abstracts that I’m attracted to — with big colored spaces — but this is the way I paint, I can’t really change it. I don’t know if they’re pleasing or interesting or anything. They are just an authentic residue of what I do when I handle paint.

oil on canvas, 2021. (Robert Mace Bent)

How do you decide things at the start of a piece, like the size? Do different ideas demand small or large canvases?

Sometimes it depends what materials are at hand. Not so much intention involved.

Are your paintings mostly oil?

Yes, mostly oil. Some acrylic. And drawings. Often I start with acrylic then switch to oil. I don’t experiment much with special materials and mediums that can be added in.

oil on canvas, 2021. (Robert Mace Bent)

Have you ever gotten especially good advice as an artist? Or do you have advice?

I’m fortunate that I have a mentor who is a pretty well-known exhibited artist with work in several museum collections. I love having the opportunity to talk to her, even if we don’t always agree. She asks me questions about the choices I make. It can be like throwing yourself into the vortex, questions I would never have asked myself. But I find it helpful.

Landing – acrylic on Yupo, 30″ x 72″, 2020. (Robert Mace Bent)

Is there anything I didn’t cover?

Art is both serious and frivolous at the same time. People who try to elevate art into a religion or some sacred thing, aren’t seeing both sides of it, and I don’t want to live in that world. I want to have fun with it.

Where to find Robert Mace Bent:

Jeff Wrench (when not interviewing artists for Flypaper) paints people in odd colors on pieces of wallpaper and paint chips in his studio at Indian Orchard Mills, Springfield, MA.

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