Desert and Sea
I was standing outside of Lynda Benglis’ studio watching the wind shift through the desert grass. Benglis’ studio in rural New Mexico is a still place where even a light wind has a sound. The indigenous grass on this early December day is a very soft yellow faded almost to cream and so sensitive to the delicate prevailing wind that I could hear and see the desert breathing.
When this meditative, almost magical, moment passed, I realized the experience was part of my mind’s eye processing what I had just seen in Benglis’ studio.
As a native New Mexican it is very common to hear someone suddenly taken with the strange beauty of its landscape say, “It’s very beautiful, but I could not live here. I would miss the ocean.” Speaking for those of us who live in New Mexico, I can reply, “We never miss the ocean because we live at the bottom of the sea.”
If you want to know what I mean by that statement take a considered look at Benglis’ recent paper sculptures. At first glance there is something in them of the crustaceous, something of an aquatic animal left fossilized from a distant geological age now uncovered by the desert wind, now lying exposed, bleached and scoured by the sun. There is also something reptilian, something of a remnant left from a metamorphic transformation by a creature that has shed its skin and left behind its mortal coil. What is left behind of this rising, of this transformation process, is a cocoon, a shell fragment of petrified skin, scale, and bone. Acknowledging the spent body, Benglis at one point described her painting on these twisting fragments as a tattoo.
This work is purely concentrated abstract sculptural form, yet the fact that the perceiving eye shifts from abstract image, to the body or corpus, to a spectral image rising or falling, to a carnival mask, to an abandoned paper and chicken wire fragment is undeniable. Benglis works with this shifting perception deliberately, but even she can’t quite describe how or why. Benglis’ work is hard to pin down or categorize. Trying to corral it formally is like boxing clouds.
Believe me, I tried. I questioned Benglis as we stood looking at the work in her studio. On the one hand Benglis spoke of intersecting planes. As she spoke I could see the almost cubist inside-outside-front and back-side visual thinking that explained how she constructed these complicated forms. There is a geometric logic to her work but the geometry is not Euclidian. I tried to think of taking Mondrian’s grid and wrapping it around a twisting, shifting chicken wire skeleton until it becomes the anti-grid. I thought, “That’s a good way to describe works like Butterfly Jumper or New Sparkle Jumper: Mondrian goes to the anti-grid Mardi Gras.”
I thought I understood her hands-on thinking as she built the pieces. It made sense as she spoke. I thought I had it, but I lost it. There is an “of the body” physicality to her process. At least I understood that much.
I deeply regretted that it was too late to pull out my cell phone and record her brilliant explanation. I knew I could not reconstruct it. My next thought was, “Talk about the ultimate in a shaped canvas. There is no one in contemporary sculpture who has taken the work on paper to this extreme.”
Benglis spoke of the way Pollack used the line of poured paint as a means to draw. Next Benglis spoke of De Kooning and how she sometimes thought of him when she drew on the form. As she spoke I could see in the work a virtuoso formal performance of drawing with three dimensions. After all, the surface of the works is paper. Not only are they works on paper, they are paper works.
This led to her subjective feeling of holding and shaping space as she molded the still moist paper pulp to the wire. She spoke almost as if she was touching a body. Next she spoke of the paper as a skin, then as fabric, and then as flesh: “We have a love hate relationship with flesh, we love it and we hate it.” This is true of Benglis’ work, this sense of grotesque excess that we love and hate in de Kooning’s women or Lucien Freud’s painted flesh.
Looking beyond the paper surfaces I commented, “The chicken wire as it projects through the paper gives the illusion of a spine or scales.” Benglis liked the thought and responded by saying, “I have been thinking of calling this body of work Personages.” Next she said, “Maybe Primal Paper would be even better.”
I said that I see in the work apparitions, specters rising or plunging, something almost of a hallucination. Benglis liked that thought as well. Next I tried to convey the feeling of a desert landscape in the sculpture and said, “I see in the work both a figure and a landscape.” Benglis confirmed that perception, saying, “The ridges of wire give a feel of landscape. I sometimes see a topography when I am painting on the form.”
Benglis’ work is hard to categorize or pin down. So what’s new? This has been true for fifty years. Don’t even start with the Post-minimal or Feminist jargon. Save that to con the undergrads. One thing is true. She is a real pro, a major leaguer. The league she plays in includes, Bourgeois, Hesse, Martin, Mitchel, and Ryman - just to name a few stars.
I characterize Benglis as a professional visual thinker. She thinks through and with the improvisation of materials to make sculptural objects. She has developed, over fifty years, her own voice with a vocabulary and syntax of materials to let her images speak her mind. This is why her work is immediately recognizable as a Benglis. This is why when viewing this new body of sculpture made of paper pulp, chicken wire, glitter paper, and acrylic black coal dust paint your first thought is: I have never seen anything like it. You are right. This is what distinguishes a real pro from an art school one trick wonder.
Benglis’ thinking begins with the voice, even the soul, of her materials. Who would have thought that chicken wire has soul? Benglis from the start has been a pioneer in the use of contemporary materials to make her images. Her breakout installation of poured cantilevered wall pieces at the Walker in 1971 was entitled Adhesive Products. The origins of the new paper sculpture goes back to works in 1971 like Adhesive Products, Totems, Hoofers, and Paddles.
Benglis is an imagist. She creates three-dimensional images. She is also a hard-nosed formalist. The object is what it is. Benglis refuses to leave you in the reverie of sculptural illusion and metaphor she has created. She breaks down the theatrical fourth wall. One moment you are lost in an unreal world of spectral images that shift like clouds. The next moment you see the thin line of industrial wire and the household pushpin that suspends this “found” fragment of chicken wire, paper, and paint. The ordinariness of these support materials simultaneously gives an “incredible lightness of being” to these ‘kites’ or ‘paper lanterns.’
Benglis’ paper sculptures are enigmatic objects because your visual perception and your mind’s eye can’t easily find a means to help categorize what it sees. This is a deliberate, though intuitive, formal strategy that has characterized Benglis’ work from the start. Her sculptures continually challenge your perception.
A young Italian art dealer with whom I recently viewed this work compared Benglis to Bernini. Paraphrasing his words, he told me: “Bernini took his surface and form to the grotesque, transgressing traditional beauty to create something even more beautiful.” There is something transgressive and grotesque that I have always admired in Benglis’ work. There is the Baroque in Benglis. She will follow the form to its excess, to the grotesque, even to the absurd to create something “even more beautiful.”
For Benglis this willingness to push over the top to excess is the essence of Baroque. Another way to capture Benglis’ work formally is to call it “Contemporary Baroque.” Benglis blows right through preciousness and good taste, knowing full well that happy endings don’t work in art. Benglis’ definition of Baroque is freedom. Benglis will follow her visual idea to its intuitive and logical conclusion no matter where it leads her.
Benglis intuits a space between initial visual perception and the brain’s search for a word or concept to fix the object in place. This is why at seventy-six Bengalis still creates work that is enigmatic and restless. The best way to think of her recent paper sculpture is to imagine yourself in a desert at the bottom of the sea.