A new painter, old form: The work of Indy’s Benny Sanders 

A preview of new work from Benny Sanders

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“People will see me painting on Facebook and think of Bernie Sanders,” says 33-year-old painter Benny Sanders, whose portraits, often in shades of burnt umber and black, owe a debt to Spanish masters such as Francisco de Goya and Diego Velázquez.

Sanders caught a glimpse of his (almost) doppelgänger/Senator from Vermont in Fountain Square back in early May.


“I was working at Wildwood Market making sandwiches and somebody pulled into our parking lot in a bus,” says Sanders. “We weren’t even open yet. We were thinking there were going to be thirty people getting off the bus and trying to get sandwiches. But it was security people and press people and then Bernie Sanders ran into Peppy’s and ate.”

A couple blocks away from Peppy’s is Pioneer Indy, the restaurant which will feature Sanders’ exhibition of 25 paintings, charcoal drawings, and prints. Entitled Cloak and Dagger: New Works from Benny Sanders, the show will feature live music from the Chase Blackburn Trio and the Vulgar Boatmen.

But Sanders’ exhibition could just as easily be entitled “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” after Goya’s 1799 self-portraits etching which portrays the artist asleep at his desk and assaulted by various winged demons.

And it seems, for many of us, monsters were born out of this election. In his somber palettes, Sanders’ subjects seem to be succumbing to darkness. Looking around his studio space, you’ll see some work that recalls Roman mosaics, like those buried under ash in Pompeii. Another painting shows a young man’s head encased in a large cube of what looks like green Jello on a table, wrapped in a garland of flowers — a still life in every sense of the word, perhaps? There’s an eerie portrait of French poet Charles Baudelaire. And then there’s a painted portrait of a young woman in profile wearing a skull as a crown, which owes something in the way of influence not only to the Spanish masters but also to Mauricio Lasansky’s Nazi Drawings.

“I work from life and from photos; a little of both,” says Sanders. “I was working primarily from life for a while to figure out how something looks when light hits it. But now I’m busier and I have more stuff that I want to do, so I don’t have time to schedule people to come over. When I first started painting, I had ten or fifteen people come over, hang out, and talk.”

But currently, Sanders works more from photos, capturing his subjects in motion with a digital camera. And painting subjects in motion, in a dark palette, leads to a sense of unease and mystery.

Perhaps the real mystery is how good his paintings are, considering he just started learning to paint this August. Not that he doesn’t have artistic training: He graduated with a B.F.A in printmaking from Ball State in 2006, after growing up in Indianapolis. But excellent printmakers don’t always make great printmakers (and vice versa). And until this August, Sanders hasn’t been doing much of anything in the way of visual art.

Over the past decade, he did play the bass in two bands that followers of the Indy music scene should be familiar with: Everthus the Deadbeats and Jookabox.

But currently, Indy art aficionados can’t get enough of his work. His solo show of his work at General Public Collective this past May generated both buzz, red dots galore, and cash.

“It was this strange euphoric art buying experience where everyone was running around with red dots,” says Sanders. “Everyone was super pumped to be buying art and I was super pumped to be selling art.”

He also a forthcoming show at the Indianapolis Art Center in Summer 2017.

Currently he’s employed at Milktooth, one of the world’s best restaurants — if the list compiled by Condé Nast Travel means anything to you — where he’s employed as a coffee specialist. And it’s difficult to separate out his work at Milktooth from his work painting palettes because some patrons of Milktooth have become his painting subjects. One of these patrons, the Harrison Center-based Justin Vining, has become his painting companion. Every week they go out landscape painting together, painting outdoors, on location.

“He actually came to Milktooth,” says Sanders. “He was painting in the morning and I was working. This is like right when I got interested in oil painting. I went out and talked to him. He was painting the building next to it. He said, ‘I’ve been seeing this glare in the window, I really want to paint it.’"

Cloak and Dagger: New Works from Benny Sanders
Pioneer Indy
featuring live music from the Chase Blackburn Trio and the Vulgar Boatmen.
Dec. 2, 8 p.m. - Dec. 3, 11 p.m.

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