Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
By Shana Nys Dambrot
Through December 16th
Lynda Benglis’ career is characterized by the dramatic upending of many kinds of social and art historical expectations; as a practical matter her rebellion is not only stylistic, but material as well. Her sculptures combine elements of polyurethane, ceramic, handmade paper, chicken wire, glaze, glitter, coal, steel, aluminum, and bronze both in singular and hybridized configurations, at economies of scale from the intimate to the monumental. Yet across myriad hard-and-soft surface treatments of texture, color, depth, and luminosity, an organizing principle in Benglis’ work is the consciousness of what things are made of. Despite the conceptual strength and emotional power of her work, “What is it?” is almost always the first question from the viewer. The truth is her core materials — metal, clay, paper, resin — are not unconventional in the world of modern sculpture. It’s more that her treatment of those materials demonstrates an utter translation of cold-blooded modernism from a minimalist idiom into florid, organic poetics.
Expectations for her newest work surely abound. But at Blum & Poe the entry point to the show takes the viewer straight out of the brain and right into the body, as the sublime presence of the star of the show sets up a compelling dynamic of surprise and significance that continues throughout the exhibition. Though a stationary sculpture, the 11 x 19 x 19-foot stainless steel and cast polyurethane HILLS AND CLOUDS (2014) is foremost an experience. It glows in the dark by the way, so no, you’re not imaging the green tinge to its frothiest contours — that’s the phosphorescence. It was made to be shown outdoors, at the Storm King Art Center in the softly rolling wooded hillsides of upstate New York. In its architectural cave-like structure it promises shelter which is ultimately not accessible. Crossbeams, a pyre of supports and decaying geological buttresses, and the soft, eerie topcoat that lays like snow and blooms like lichen simultaneously directly reference and totally deconstruct elements of landscape and abstract sculpture. One imagines the differences between the outdoor parkland context and the crisp white box in terms of what it highlights or amplifies in the form. Would its obviously inorganic materiality seem out of place there, like bringing art outside — whereas in bringing the outside world into the gallery sphere, viewers marvel at the organic aesthetic and presence of the work.
This same kind of dualistic energy between the alive and the made persists throughout the show, in particular as this major work is installed in dialog with several large-scale aluminum works from 2009. FIGURES 2-6 and THE FALL CAUGHT resemble squid-like or even alien life forms, Martian moss trees, frozen waterfalls, industrial metal slag runoff. Different from every angle, organic and extraterrestrial, Benglis achieves a harmonic dissonance between the material and its treatment, which is her hallmark. This is true of the trilogy of bright-eyed egg-forms from 2017, in which mythology dances with mid-century abstraction and a Pop-inflected palette. These are followed by the light-as-air constructivist wave of paper sculpture works from 2015-16 which play with dualities of sharp and delicate, high and low, and architecture and craft in an idiosyncratic way that is both reverential and witty. The quirky chicken wire is often exposed, revealing the personality of the pragmatic foundation along with the leading surfaces. This kind of unexpected and self-revelatory gesture hints at the more personal, even private nature of this paper series. And in these works in particular, titling makes itself the most felt in furtherance of the overall idea. With STORM A’ COMING, SHY FIVE, BROKEN FAVOR, VESTED SPIRIT, DRESSED TO KILL, we move into micro-narrative territory. It invites emotion and personal experience to have a voice in the materialist and formalist conversations, without ever ignoring technique or failing to take a risk.
The upstairs gallery is devoted to a ceramic spread which is all 2013 except two from 1993, which take pride of place like the heads of the huge family of offspring that arrived 20 years later. A dozen torso-sized forms occupy pedestals and space in two’s and three’s at intervals, giving enough information for comparisons and enough empty space for contemplation. A profusion of crooks, curves, jaunty planes, imprints, fissures, caesuras, open weaves, bends, and crevices is animated by a litany of color in palimpsestic layers, fleeting grounds, and with the illusions of randomness and time. They each have a name, and with it the hint of a personality and a soul. Like a family of beings, they are the same and each unique, and in these ways as well as the nature of ceramic in general, they are directly tethered to the realm of anatomy and experience. The ceramics are industrial almost post-punk, with postures of gestural anatomy and patinas in a strong, masculine, saturated palette. They are hard-edged like Chamberlains, rendered in a warmer, sensual material. They resolve material and conceptual paradoxes, as Benglis always does — by challenging art history’s assumptions not on its terms but on her own.