Monday, January 21, 2008

Jessica Benjamin: The American Series (at MCAC)

The Rapper (Tragedy)
(composite image of a slave child and Method Man)

This past weekend I took the 2 hour trek down to bloomington-normal to see old friend Jessica Benjamin and an exhibit of some of her new artwork. The highly anticipated show is called The American Series, and it runs at the McClean County Arts Center through February 16th.

First off, Jess has become a bit famous since the days we all were students at ISU. We've kept in touch a small bit after she moved to New York City, and a year or so back she had mentioned that her work had just become known to one of the most celebrated jazz musicians of our time - Wynton Marsalis . Wynton evidently expressed an interest in her paintings, and gave her the music and lyrics to a then-unreleased album. And now - time flying by as it does - the project is finished. Yes, Jess' work is now forever coupled with Wynton's music on his newest album, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary. Her paintings adorn the entire CD booklet, including the cover, and play an integral part in the theme of the album. Very nice.

So... back to the show... the gallery was packed with visitors. PACKED. There were probably about a dozen paintings from this new series of work, and I genuinely liked what I saw. Back in school, Jessica and I (among other artists that took print classes) made a lot of quiet, meditative landscape work; but to her credit, Jess always branched out more than the rest of us and did other things - including a lot of figure drawing and painting. The American Series is solely comprised of portrait paintings, sans one painting that stood out because it was a different size than the rest (much larger) and a different type of image (street scene of a march). That said, I got the sense from Jessica that the portrait paintings are the heart of the matter, so I'll focus on those.

Physically, the series is comprised of smaller-than-I-anticipated oils on paper, involving somewhere around a 12 x 12 inch actual image area. Content-wise, I walked away feeling like I saw a very eloquent, honest, and quiet critique of America, and as I edit this before posting, it's proving really difficult to accurately explain what I mean by that. The work doesn't hit you over the head with burning flags or graphic mockeries of "Dubya," rather, it takes a much more heartfelt approach by presenting portraits of our people. However, simply describing the work as "portraits" would sell it short... each of these "portraits" are uniquely interesting because of a tactic employed by the artist. I'll use an example to explain. Say you're looking at the painting in the show called "The Politician."

Upon first glance, you undoubtedly notice the title and begin to search your memory, wondering who exactly is pictured. I did this with many of the pieces and wound up somewhat perplexed until I talked with jessica some more. Upon closer inspection of the artist statement, you realize you're seeing amalgamations of several key figures in each of the paintings. "The Politician" is actually a composite image of both Vice President Cheney and former FEMA director Michael Brown ("heckuva job, Brownie!"). This type of approach to making to portraits was taken with all the paintings on display. To some it might seem gimmicky at first, but I found it very purposeful and well thought-out. See, the act of combining two or more real people —sometimes famous, sometimes not — brings to form an all-encompassing surrogate figure. The power of the pieces isn't found within the boundaries of Jessica's execution/talent/skill; the power is found in the act of viewing this surrogate figure, the visceral reaction one has to the meaning evoked through it as a signifier. And sometimes that meaning is power or anger; sometimes the meaning is loss, or love.

The Katrina Victim
(a composite of several people affected by the New Orleans flood)

The Queen
(composite of a New York socialite and the queen of spades from a standard deck of cards)

This type of social realism is pretty tricky to pull off nowadays in the art world, or in other modes of communication and expression. As each side of the political isle outspins the other's attacks at a seeming hyper-speed, our nation's collective eyes glaze over with a frustration that quickly leads to an uninterest. The subjects' faces in jessica's work, however, boil everything down to a most simple matter — a singular identity that is easy to become interested in and easy to care about.

I left the show thinking about some ties the work had to other artists' work throughout the ages. To continue with the discussion of contrasting an underhanded social critique to a more overt political art, let me draw upon two printmaker/painters from an earlier time - Honore Daumier and Kathe Kollwitz. Both artists created work that I would argue fell on both sides of this coin. Here are two works by Daumier that illustrate the differences in approach I speak of:

Honore Daumier

Honore Daumier
Third Class carriage

...and two pieces by Kollwitz showing the same difference in approach/intent:

Kathe Kollwitz

Kathe Kollwitz
Widows and Orphans

Do you see what I mean? How does one best get people to pay attention to social issues when using art as the medium? There are the direct, in your face, "fuck you"s found in political art, punk rock music, and poetry slam-ish writings, and there are the more underhanded routes that present information in a less raucous, savage manner. Both are equally powerful, necessary, and legitimate, but after Jess' show I started to think the latter tends to get people to pay attention in a more sincere way.

Jessica Benjamin working with local children at the McLean County Arts Center, 2008



John said...

Hey Matt, very interesting post and great images. I am a graduate student preparing a paper for publication about the album (From the Plantation to the Penitentiary) that Benjamin's paintings were featured in. I am particularly interested that the people represented in these paintings are supposed to be composite images. Did you get that information from personal conversation with Benjamin? Or was there some sort of printed commentary to accompany the exhibition? I have been trying to find discussion of these paintings without too much success. I would be very grateful for any information you have on this. You can reach me at Thank you so much.

Matt said...

hey, john. good to meet you. i'll write you back via email shortly...