BEHOLD THE RICH ORES: THE ASSEMBLAGES OF BARBARA BENISH

 

Mira, de espigas rojas,
En los campos formarse
Pajizos chamelotes
A las olas del aire.

Mira, de esas
Los ricos minerales,
Cuya preney es oro,
Rubies y diamantes.

 

Barbara Benish's fertile, far-ranging mind drives her often enigmatic art-an art whose beauty startles by its extravagance of mixed-media manipulations and its multiple, shifting readings. For nearly a decade her work has been inspired by "the relationship of human existence to that of nature, and how it is expressed in visual terms." Given that commitment, it follows that Benish's symbols are often open-ended and conflicting and that she continually circles around categories that are uneasily defined: painting and assemblage, man-made objects and organic nature, the "mark" and the image, kitsch and folk expression, rational systems and animistic fetishism, Western art and, most especially, the cultural expression of "others".

 

Benish's fascination with non-Western, nonhierarchical creative practices was announced early on in a 1982 exhibition at the University of Hawaii. For this exhibition, the Los Angeles artist integrated her own oil paintings with examples of hand stamped and dyed ancient Hawaiian tapa textiles. Her interest was in establishing formal and technical relations between the tapa designs and her own imagery; at the same time she wished to call attention to the arbitrary boundary between fine and utilitarian art. A later 1989 exhibition at a Los Angeles gallery saw Benish attaching a considerable number of objects to often large-scale oil paintings of great sensual beauty. The objects tended to the common, everyday goods that Benish had collected during many visits to Czechoslovakia, starting in 1979. The imagery, however was complex; it alluded to hermetic investigations, linked with medieval alchemy, that were directed by King Rudolph in the late 16th century. This imagery, although esoteric for an American painter, conforms with Benish's longstanding interest in Northern Renaissance and Northern Baroque art history. Indeed, many of her specific allusions are to the art of Hieronymus Bosch and Albrecht DURER ( 1, 2).

 

Benish's penchant for Northern art is partially based on her suspicion of scientific perspective as an organizing view of the world. She has been influenced in this regard by the views of both Hegel and the Frankfurt School theorists concerning the force of Enlightenment rationality on the instrumental manipulation of Nature and consequent dehumanizing relationships. Thus Benish has been drawn to objects {particularly actual plants], images, and belief systems that support her sympathy for an expressive identification with nature-one that values the things of this world not for their utility but for theie intrinsic lifr and beauty. It is not surprising, then, that so much of Benish's recent imagery has concerned itself with the symbols and rituals of native American Indians. In this exhibition, for instance, Toloache {pl. 9 } associates taken from Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights with the hallucinatory properties of the indigenous American Jimson weed or "toloache" in Native American dialect. With a kind of sympatheric magic, Benish draws a parallel between jimson weed and the narcotic properties of the narcissus plant.

 

Increasingly, Benish has presented her work in the context of complex installations in which formal qualities and a vocabulary of consonant iconographical images set up mental reverberations. The work has always evinced a desire to challenge the dominance of traditional fine-art categories and the singular "work" as commodity. Now, however, is the engagement with process apparent in Benish's use of sound and the promise of touch. Insinuating the passage off time, this suggestion of synesthesia arises most notably in the slow melting and persistent "echoes" of the "ice" pieces: The Period Between Two Events [pl. 8} and Uxorial Fountain, as well as, in this exhibition, Second Echo {for Narcissus} {pl. 5}.

In Benish's recent work, the ever present motif of Narcissus performs as a double or contradictory symbol. Narcissus becomes manifest as the actual flowers themselves in many of Benish's other assemblages, including Patagium to El Dorado {pl. 10}, in which the form of the silk parachute hung upside down echoes, in immense size, the tiny narcissi "frozen" in the clear resin "icicles" that hold the parachute in balance between earthy delight and its apotheosis heavenward. In Patagium to El Dorado the form of the parachute combines the narcissus with the Christian Chalice and offers the medicine {the sacraments} which protect the human soul. For this Christian allusion, Benish has drwn upon the poetry and plays of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz {1648 - 1695}, the Mexican nun and poet whose intellectual prowess and independence of mind gave her access to the ruling Spanish nobility. She was greatly celebrated in her own time and was remarkable for her reasoned arguments for the education of women and for her belief in a reasoned inquiry into the things of this world- i.e. "Everything that God had created." Sor Juana's interpretation of the Narcissus and Echo myth {in The Divine Narcissus,an allegorical one-act play in celebration of the Eucharist} introduces the figure of Human Nature, for love of whom Narcissus/Christ will, finally, die. This highly original rewriting of Pagen myth in Christian terms resonates on Benish's "ice" piece Echo and Narcissus.

 

If Narcissus is the guiding metaphor for this present exhibition, it is because of Benish's fascination with the historically shifting interpretations of the Narcissus and Echo myth in which the figure of Echo is transformed from the rejected but faithful lover of Narcissus to an allegory of true fame, a prototype of Eve as temptress, or an allegory {in Sor Juana de la Cruz} of Fallen Angelic Nature. The figure of Narcissus is equally malleable. He is a symbol for the punishment that comes to those who are unable to love others, an allegory for man's hopes and disappointments, a pagan prefiguration of Christ, and a symbol of art as an expression of man's moral and aesthetic nature. In modern times, of course. Narcissus gives his name to the pathology of human ego weakness and self-obsession. Of particular interest to Benish is the Frankfurt School theorists' rethinking of Freud's position, taking into account the decline of the Father's position in a family situation increasing influenced by "outside" agencies-one in which a powerful "leader" supplants the Father in the child's insufficiently worked through Oedipal complex. "Split off from… consciousness and thus lost to rationality," the frail ego experiences a helplessness that usually results in a regression to the impulses of the id." It is this socio-psychological concept of Narcissism that provides entry into the complexity of Benish's use of common objects and dried plants in her assemblages.

 

In the America of late capitalism, the attitude toward kitsch is greatly differen

t from that in countries just emerging from a state-dictated economy of scarcity. Kitsch, as Milan Kundera has pointed out in useful definition, "describes the desire to please the greatest number of people at any cost... Kitsch translates the foolishness of widely held views into the language of beauty and sentiment. "Indeed, one might usefully relate the concept of a "narcissistic personality" to that of a contemporary "kitsch personality" that has characterized America since the1960s when artists became very knowing in their manipulations of kitsch. Mainstream American art has created what Benish has called the American "Warholian vacuum of consumer critique/pleasure." Perhaps a genuine folk expression is no longer possible in an advertising-oriented, mass-media culture. The nostalgia for such an expression is romantically confused with the products of our own society's recent past and also with the indisputable charm of another society's kitsch, a confusion even more subtle in the culture clash between Los Angeles and the Old World. The unfamiliarity of the objects and images in Benish's recent work {mostly unrelated to mass production and pop objects} calls attention to the stress {the cross-cultural, the translation difficulties} that is revealed in the tension between kitsch and folk expression, as well as by different attitudes that capitalist and socialist countries entertained toward kitsch itself. Thus, Benish's art is a minority and subversive voice. Her reclamation of things and images that have apparently fallen through the seamless net of commodity exchange is a courageous encounter with potentiality-with life as it might otherwise be.

 

It is clear, however, that Benish's love of manipulating objects has not kept her from exhibiting her accomplishments as painter and draughtsperson. The details of her recent work reveal her pleasure in the purely painterly as a simple artisan activity. Masquerading as rococo decoration in the "Frederico" plaque of Blood Wedding {pl. 1}, painterly gesture forms a kind of repressed supplement to more usually assemblage practice. Equally, Benish's delight in personal mark making reveals itself in her idiosyncratic transcriptions of botanical diagrams and antiquated prints in Petalos de Pensamientos {pl. 6}, for instance, and in the series of wall emblems made from stretched chamois and fake animal skins.

 

All of Benish's assemblages show her drawn to the multiplicity of methods that have been used for making sense of the world, especially arcane or lost systems that suggest a congruence amongst rational thinking, mythological knowledge, and the processes and secrets of nature. It is a truism, of course, that what we objectify as Nature in our modern, technologically obsessed societies has become increasingly obdurate and unforgiving. Benish is one of many artists today who voices a concern for the disgraceful state of our planet and who argue for the necessity of reconnecting the world with ideas of beauty. Indeed, one of the many interpretations of the Narcissus myth is altogether contemporary, and Benish cites with admiration the thoughts of James Hillman. Hillman has spoken of our age's "repression of beauty" and speaks of narcissism as a sign of " a beauty disordered, the face of the world unattended." He points to the necessary connection between the desire for beauty and the need for ecological thinking. Given Benish's attraction to Sor Juana's Christianization of the Narcissus myth, one might add that Christian theology emphasizes not only God the Father but also God as the Christ Child. The symbolism of the helpless baby in need of nourishment and protection from those who adore Him is a call for our responsibility toward the earth and its inhabitants. It is Benish's desire to make an art that both redeems {in the sense of buying back our lost connection with Nature and our lost engagement with Beauty} and atones {in the sense of healing the wounds of the earth's "body"}.

 

Anne Ayres
Director of Exhibitions at
Otis/Parsons School of Art and Design, Los Angeles, California.

 

  1. Sor Jaune de la aCruy, from The Divine Narcissus, in A Sor Juana Anthology,trans. Alan S. Trueblood {Cambridge , Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988}, 151. "See red-gold ears of grain / sending billows everywhere / like waves of watered silk / stirred by waves of the air / Behold the rich ores / whose swelling mountains hold: / how they team with diamonds, / glow with rubies and gold."

  2. Barbara Benish, unpublished "Notes about the Work."

  3. An Exhibit of 5 Textiles and 5 Paintings { October 17-21, 1982}, Commons Gallery, Art Department, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii.

  4. Bohemian Elegy {March 10-April 8, 1989}, Saxon-Lee Gallery, Los Angeles, California.

  5. An exhibition of Benish's Dürer series is scheduled for May 1992 at the Dürer House, Nuremberg. Germany; the catalogue essay is by Donald Kuspit.

  6. Sor Juane,A Sor Juana Anthology ,9.

  7. See Michael Grant, Myths of the Greeks and Romans {New York: New American Library, 1962}, 333-337.

  8. See David Held,Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas {Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980}, 136. The quote is from Theodore Adorno,"Sociology and Psychology," New Left Reviewno. 47 {1968}, 88.

  9. Milan Kundera, quoted by Anton Shammas in "Kitsch 22: On the Problems of the Relations Between Majority and Minority Cultures in Israel," Tikkun: A Jewidh Critique of Politics, Culture and Society {September/October 1987}, reprinted in Harper's Magazine{November 1987}, 32.

  10. Barbare Benish, unpublished "Notes about the Work."

  11. James Hillman, "The Repression of Beauty", Tema Celeste{May-June, 1991}, 60.


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