Opening reception: Friday, Feb. 8, 6–8 p.m., free

The ArtsCenter, Carrboro

Some of the works in Medicine Cabinet, Ben Hamburger’s exhibit at The ArtsCenter, are conventional meetings of paint and canvas. But others are painted on pill bottles and cell phones, a juxtaposition Hamburger uses to explore the adverse effects of technology on mental health and the disconnect between natural and artificial remedies.

“I think we are massively overprescribed in this culture, so the reuse of pill bottles for a painting surface is a nod to just that,” Hamburger says. “I think we dream of a quick fix for our psychological problems, and this same impulse might be why we compulsively look at our phones. … Both the phones and the pill bottles represent ways we search for happiness that often lead to dependency and the opposite.” 

While the exhibit’s title is quite literal, given the pill bottles, Hamburger says it also more broadly represents the ways that people attempt to heal and take care of themselves. In “Psilocybin,” Hamburger transforms the lids of five pill bottles into a fragmented painting of magic mushrooms. That contrast between science and nature is also illustrated in “Sunset,” an arrangement of six phone screens coated in hues of blue and gold that depict a sky at dusk. 

“I have been interested in exploring the tension between our compulsive use of technology and prescription meds and our desire to be natural or psychologically free and enlightened,” Hamburger says. “I think there is a trend toward finding natural states of being—meditation, yoga, even ways of eating—that are direct rebuttals to the screens we stare at all the time and the number of meds we are prescribed.”

For Hamburger, who was born and raised on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., and is now based in Carrboro, the act of painting itself is a rejection of this desire for instant gratification.

“It is slow, takes a deep concentration and awareness, and is totally ancient and analog,” he says of the art form.

The paintings featuring the pill bottle lids and cell phones also represent how a dependence on technology often leads to a desire to escape from it, Hamburger says. 

“Painting on top of these particular surfaces represents a certain dichotomy that is part of our contemporary culture: a need for technology and synthetic mood-changing drugs and a primal urge to return to something more simple, authentic, and natural,” he says. “Some of these paintings depict something natural and beautiful on top of something synthetic or digital, representing this tension. The tension isn’t bad; it’s just something that I think a lot of people are living in.”

Hamburger included three self-portraits in Medicine Cabinet, which runs through the end of February after Friday night’s opening reception and artist talk. One of the self-portraits is on a phone screen, one is on pill bottles, and one is on canvas. “Selfie,” the canvas piece, mimics the rectangular dimensions of a photo taken on a phone camera, though it is larger in size. Other portraits on canvas, many of which depict individuals contorting their limbs to fit within the limits of the frame, replicate that same shape. 

“I wanted to use this format to show how that can affect people, showing them trapped within the confines of the rectangular frame,” Hamburger says. “I was also interested in showing the difference in scale between the little tiny phones and these large paintings of people. So much powerful stuff is scaled down to fit in our pockets.” 

This isn’t the first time that Hamburger has used his paintings as a form of social commentary—one of his series, titled Monuments, depicts the removal of Confederate statues—but he says he knows he doesn’t have all the answers. What he does have, though, is a lot of questions. 

“I make art, first of all, about what I’m interested in, issues that I find myself really pondering or unable to clearly answer, issues that I think need to be unpacked,” Hamburger says. “I think we’re in a time when things are so black and white, and there are these binaries, and art has the capacity to open up the door for different kinds of conversation and look at things from multiple perspectives at once. So I think all of the subject matter that I tackle through my painting comes from not necessarily wanting to answer questions, but more just putting that curiosity out there.”  

Correction: Ben Hamburger’s opening reception does not feature an artist talk.