Carl E. Smith Launches “River” with Erik Benjamins’ Fellowship Exhibition

Erik Benjamins, Forgetting the Words at River, Installation view. Photo Courtesy of River and the artist.

Erik Benjamins, Forgetting the Words at River

Through July 29

By Lorraine Heitzman

In a quiet residential neighborhood in Echo Park, behind a gate and down a flight of steps, River’s new gallery is nestled in the backyard of a nondescript house. There is no sign that indicates Carl E. Smith’s latest venture, but his mandate to mentor emerging artists and support non-commercial art is well suited to the low profile, high-concept alternative space.

Smith is the former gallery director of CES that operated in downtown Los Angeles between 2012-2018. CES began to offer fellowships for underrepresented artists a few years ago and now that River has officially launched, the River Fellowship Program continues the effort to support local and international contemporary artists. The fellowship mentors artists who have yet to show in a commercial venue and includes the opportunity to exhibit at the gallery. Erik Benjamins was chosen for the 2018 fellowship and Forgetting the Words is the inaugural show at River.

This is Benjamins’ first solo exhibition in Los Angeles. Five years after earning his MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, (now officially part of Tufts) he returned to his home in Long Beach. This body of work began shortly after his return and can best be understood as a rediscovery or homage to the Southern California landscape. It is also a synthesis of his interests developed at SMFA: concrete poetry, performance/body work, and photography. As Benjamins explained to me when we met at the gallery, his show is comprised of three elements that conspire to evoke this sensory picture: the photographs, the wall color and wall text.

The photographs were made on a portable scanner and there are six sparse but quite beautiful prints of bougainvillea taken in the field. Tightly framed to exclude anything other than the flowers and the occasional weed or chain link fence, the photographs have a limited depth of field, but they possess a range of tonality that brings to mind photograms in their use of contact to create images. The photographs have a random quality that is the result of the scanning process. Some petals are sharply focused while others are blurred, imbuing the images with a sense of movement and time. The lyricism and dreamy quality of the imagery is heightened by the scanner’s limited range of focus.

The wall color was created to match the color of grapefruit, another touchstone for Benjamins, reminiscent of his grandfather’s citrus trees in Cathedral City. The gallery emanates light even on overcast days. Lastly, the text on the wall is a list poem of words of pressure and proximity that relate to the experience of scanning.

Grapefruit, sunshine and bougainvillea; Benjamins clearly seeks to evoke the essence of the Socal landscape and something more. His desire to make an experience tangible through different senses is an interesting challenge and one that could be further exploited. For an artist seeking to develop his voice, Forgetting the Words is a first effort that shows great promise, validating the mentorship and opportunities that River generously provides.

For viewing, contact River for hours.


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