"I am trying my best to make a living as a creative entrepreneur of
sorts. Freelance illustrations, selling wallets, deejaying, playing
live music. But Princeton is one of the hardest places to do such a
thing. I consider myself lucky with what little success I’ve achieved
here," says Princeton resident Nim Ben-Reuven. An exhibit of the
illustrator/comic strip artist’s paintings opens with a reception this
Wednesday, January 4, at Small World Coffee in Princeton. The exhibit
will be on view through Tuesday, February 7.
The artist has lived in Princeton for the majority of his life. He
attended Princeton High School, graduating in 1997, and earned a
bachelors degree in sociology in 2001 from Rutgers College.
While growing up, Ben-Reuven was surrounded by his father Moshe’s
paintings. "There were at least three paintings of his in every single
room of the house," he says. He remembers his father’s paintings as
being "so colorful and wondrous; they gave me nightmares, they gave me
good dreams. And I felt like – I gotta start doing that some day."
Born in Israel, Moshe moved to Princeton in 1973 to get his Ph.D. in
engineering, but he painted quite a bit in the 1960s and ’70s until
his children were born. (As is a common practice in the Middle East,
Moshe changed his last name to Ben-Reuven, which translates from
Israeli into "son of Reuven.") He currently runs his own business in
Princeton, MBR Research, which focuses on the production of renewable,
clean energy. Ben-Reuven’s mother, Michal, received a self-directed
master’s degree from the College of New Jersey and is self-employed,
providing Feldenkrais therapy, a yoga-like approach to targeting
relief of chronic pain.
Though a constant doodler since childhoold, it was at Rutgers where
Ben-Reuven first began to share his drawings with the public, most
notably with two comic strips, "Number 5," and "Chemical Corporation
Baby Funnies," which have run in the Rutgers Daily Targum for almost
eight years. "At Rutgers I really wanted to do something with drawing,
so my freshman year I decided to do political cartoons," Ben-Reuven
says. But after a couple of months of producing what he deems "the
worst political cartoons ever," he switched to comic strips. And while
he admits to receiving his share of hate mail, eventually the comic
strips reached an almost cult-like status. The strips have enjoyed so
much popularity that Ben-Reuven has been selling silk-screened
t-shirts and handmade, and yes, duct tape wallets featuring images of
some of the characters.
While most of the characters in the comic strips are, he says,
"strange-looking human characters," Ben-Reuven began to place silent
animal characters in the background, characters who slowly grew in
importance both in the comic strips and paintings. Ben-Reuven’s recent
paintings revolve around simple animal characters, both invented and
real, drawn in pen and ink and set within colorful backgrounds ranging
from cityscapes to simple shapes of color.
Three years ago he started to write and illustrate a children’s book
focusing on animals, which he is now completing in collaboration with
writer Emily Raboteau, entitled "The Bird That Swallowed the Moon."
After trying the project on his own, Ben-Reuven decided that his
writing abilities did not match the quality of his illustrations and
luckily, Raboteau – an established writer, resident of Brooklyn, New
York, and the sister of one of Ben-Reuven’s long-time Princeton
friends – agreed to help him write the story. Currently the book is
still in production stage and publisher have not yet been approached.
Ben-Reuven says that what drives his interest in animals as a central
theme is "our perception of animals as having certain emotions, and
what type of animal it is that has a style of emotion that humans
anthropomorphize onto it. I always thought it was neat that people
have different perceptions of what an animal is thinking."
He affectionately refers to one of the recurring characters in his
paintings as "Monkey-Bear," a character who debuted in his comic
strips "as an undocumented National Geographic animal that the
magazine didn’t want to get into because they were too depressing."
Monkey-Bear is no doubt influenced by Ben-Reuven’s love of George
Herriman’s comic strip of the early 1900’s, "Krazy Kat."
"Herriman has one of the most magical styles of drawing, and it’s a
good comic strip too," Ben-Reuven says. "It had a lot to do with
strange animals, not your Disney style of animals, but animals that
are all hiding something, some background that you are not quite sure
of and nothing is quite straightforward with them."
In Ben-Reuven’s paintings, Monkey-Bear’s motives are just as elusive.
Monkey-Bear is always drawn with the same facial expression with two
large round eyes staring straight ahead, heavily shaded underneath.
There is a small triangular nose with a single thin line descending
from it to the bottom edge of the face, with no discernible mouth to
In one of the paintings, Monkey-Bear stands in an empty room with
red-orange walls, a blue floor, and grey ceiling. A small light hangs
above him, and he is standing just outside of a pink circle, staring
blankly forward, holding a pistol in his hand, seemingly pointed
nowhere in particular. It is a stark composition, simple colors and
Monkey-Bear. Viewers are left to create their own story, their own
take on the scene beginning with a question perhaps as simple as "Is
this a good or bad situation?" The image leaves the viewer to brood.
At their best, Ben-Reuven’s paintings are thoroughly ambiguous – in a
good way. Take the two paintings, "Waiting to Be Let In" and "Waiting
to Be Let Out," in which we see Monkey-Bear again, in one painting
staring at an empty house and in the other, inside of a house staring
out. Looking at either painting, due to the emotionless face of
Monkey-Bear, one is left to wonder whether or not the bear really
cares to be one place or the other, inside or out. And the titles add
to the wondering: Who is Monkey-Bear waiting for? Why can’t he go in
or out of his own accord? There seems to be a slightly uncomfortable
complacency in both of the paintings. Time is even ambiguous in both.
You would be hard pressed to say whether or not it was dawn or dusk,
day or night in either, due to a well-chosen color palette of muted
orange and yellow, blue and grey.
Ben-Reuven says the animals in his paintings can be viewed in many
different ways: "Where a little kid might notice a cute bird traipsing
about a skyline, an older person might see a very morose bird barely
trying to make an effort to move its wings in some ridiculous and
perilous setting. Either way, it suits me."
The paintings in the exhibit hold very true to an underlying comic
strip aesthetic, but rather than tell a story, they invite viewers to
create their own. Each painting stands as if a single, wordless frame
from a comic strip – the frame after the setup and prior to the punch
line, when both the characters and viewers are invited to ruminate.
Ben-Reuven supplies us simple, colorful and quiet situations, and the
rest is up to us.
Says Ben-Reuven: "There is no underlying message – or is there? I ask
the viewer to use his or her imagination in discovering the who, what,
when and why of the painting. And from that, they can develop their
own world of stories and explanations. As children, we used to do a
whole lot more than we do as adults."
Nim Ben-Reuven opening reception, Wednesday, January 4, 7 to 10 p.m.,
Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street. Opening reception for an
exhibit by comic strip artist and children’s book illustrator Nim
Ben-Reuven. Also on exhibit is the work of Rich Feldman, a cartoonist.
On view through Tuesday, February 7. 609-924-4377.