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Outwardly, Benjamin Edwards’ world looks pleasant enough. Sure, the traffic’s a bitch: His geometric-abstract paintings portray dense grids of bustling avenues of flying symbols, crisscrossed by boulevards of floating patterns. But as crisp and clean-looking as his urban landscapes are, they reflect the artist’s cynicism about the world around him.
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“I lump the utopian and the dystopian together, into one category,” says Edwards, 37, one of four artists participating in “The New Future,” a show curated by local artist Kristina Bilonick that opens Friday at the District of Columbia Arts Center. Edwards’ work certainly fits the show’s title. If anything, his cityscapes—based on models he creates using 3-D modeling programs and other software—appear to suggest the distant futures of science-fiction cornerstones like Blade Runner or Minority Report. But the artist stresses that he’s addressing present-day reality. “[The work] has a sci-fi flavor to it because the aesthetic is hyperbole or exaggeration,” he says. “But that’s how I feel the world really is, whether we see it or not.”
Edwards’ source images come from all over—“from spam to characters in video games to Internet graphics,” he says. Using a Google-supported modeling program called SketchUp, he selects user-contributed models of buildings and other structures, then uses other tools to manipulate text, images, and shapes to populate his blocky vistas. “It’s a visual representation of what your mind is as a consumer,” he says. “You go out every day, and you’re bombarded by images. If you could suck all that up and keep it and regurgitate it into this visual display—that’s what I’m doing.”
But his source materials aren’t randomly selected, and many of them speak to his political interests. “If I’m reading the newspaper and I see an ad, I’ll tear it out, and I’ll scan it,” he says. “I’m choosing my references with a lot of thought. This could be informed by other works in history, other artists, something that’s been in the news a lot. They become iconic. I have my antenna up all the time.” In one instance he used the logo for military contractor Blackwater; though the image becomes unrecognizable, it serves as a comment on “the whole strategy of the war, doing it on the cheap and contracting it out.”
The varied, colorful elements in Edwards’ works become further transformed and distorted in his final paintings based on the digital images, and his separation of source objects from their meaning speaks to his central thesis, inspired by the work of political philosopher John Gray: Is progress now just a hollow concept, lost in so much noise? Edwards says he figures things are bound to improve once a new president is elected, but he thinks we might already be too far gone. “I don’t know that one should feel too hopeful for the next 100 years,” he says. “I do hope that we’re able to recognize our deficiencies and come around. My fear is that it will be too late—it will be impossible to fix things.”
When it comes to D.C.’s political theater, Edwards has a pretty good seat: He lived here for two years after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, then moved to New York in 1999 with his wife, Neera Tanden, an adviser to Sen. Hillary Clinton during her Senate campaign and current policy director for her presidential campaign. They moved to Chevy Chase in Northwest two years later. Though Edwards’ work has shown at Austria’s Kunsthaus Graz and are in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, “The New Future” is his first local show. Next April will mark his second: He’ll place a massive 7-by-21-foot painting in the lobby of 2101 L St. NW, titled The Triumph of Democracy.