In British artist Tom Benson’s current exhibition at Larry Becker Contemporary Art, the artist has laid the foundation for an investigation into seeing. A series entitled “Exhibits (A) and (B)” (2014), greets the visitor upon walking into the gallery. Each work in this series – there are five in the gallery – is split in two. The top half consists of eight small rectangles of color. The bottom responds to the top with eight corresponding halftones. These works are small in scale and simple, but they implore the viewer to take a closer look. The smooth surface of the colors, ranging from pink to orange to black, look as if done by machine. There appear to be no brushstrokes. This is the compelling illusion of these works – they were done by hand with Benson’s own mix of pigment and ultraviolet-cured ink. Benson used a printer for the halftones.
Next to the “Exhibit” series are pieces from two other series, “Graph [Blue]” and “Graph [Red].” Astonishingly, the graph paper is made by hand. In these works, Benson juxtaposes order with seemingly random watercolor marks. Regarding their placement, there is no esoteric meaning to be unlocked. But, as I looked, there seemed to be another dimension that opened up, thanks in part to the sheen of the glass covers. The works suddenly had more depth than at first glance. By the time I arrived at the fifth one on the wall, “Graph [Red] (#6),” I noticed the reflection of a woman’s face.
When I turned around I was looking at “Someone Like You” (2016), a double portrait. This work is unique not only within the context of Benson’s show, but also within the context of Becker’s gallery. Becker and his wife Heidi specialize in presenting monochromatic painting. After some time with Benson’s more austere works, “Someone Like You” shifts the focus of the viewers’ eyes with its presentation of a beautiful woman. But even though the female face is traditional portrait material, Benson finds ways to elaborate on standard presentation.
To make this work, Benson took roughly 1,000 photos. He chose two and printed them with ultraviolet-cured ink on aluminum panels. In a statement for the gallery, he describes his interest in Oskar Schlemmer’s paintings of figures in tight spaces, such as classrooms or stairwells, and “how the attention given to a turn of the head sets up a range of tensions within that space.” This influenced Benson to consider a series that “charts the transition between introspective reflection and a more direct gaze, where the eyes of subject and viewer meet.”
The woman in the photo on the left is looking down while the photo on the right, taken immediately after, shows her gaze moving upwards. Attached to the photo on the right, Benson has vertically placed a narrow piece of reflective aluminum. Is that what the woman is looking at? Certainly, it catches the viewers’ eye. If there were another frame, this woman might meet the viewers’ gaze, but Benson leaves hanging that moment of anticipation.
Throughout all of Benson’s work, the artist relies on optic and haptic engagement. In other words, the senses of sight and touch, as they relate to perception, are integral to Benson’s practice. For the artist, the touch is literal. He uses his hands to make these objects. The viewer, in contrast, has only their eyes. The changing textures and materials of Benson’s work made my eyes feel as if they had been rubbing against their surfaces. If the material was smooth, my eyes relaxed. When the surfaces were more textured, as in “Rework ” (2016), my eyes responded in kind.
“Prima [Grey]” (2015), a monochromatic painting, shares the wall with “Someone Like You.” While both works employ gray, they are not interested in the same things. In the absence of the human form, the eye follows Benson’s lead and refocuses on the textures and materials of the painting. Curiously, this work reflects nothing when viewed directly, but when standing to the side the sheen and the brushwork become more pronounced. This painting makes a nice counterpart to the “Exhibit” series where Benson’s brushwork was invisible.
In the gallery’s second room are two more monochromatic works in the “Prima” series. Benson produces work in series as a method for exploring aesthetic concerns and as a means of resisting the notion of the finished work. In the transition from the first room to the second, “[White]” (2015) creates a pleasant shift in focus. The surface of this work is different from the wall, which is also white, behind it. Instead, the brushstrokes break up the surface, making it feel more inviting, while also showing the variations within the seemingly single color painting. “[Green]” (2015), another compelling monochromatic work, hangs a few feet to the right.
It seems to me there are at least two levels of enjoyment with Benson’s monochromatic work. There is the color and there is the way that the artist manifests that color on the surface. The brushstrokes encourage one to consider the interplay of light with the art. In this regard, Benson’s work insists that the viewer slow down. This means putting away the smart phone, blinking one’s eyes a few times, and taking a few breaths. American painter Joseph Marioni, who is also represented by Larry Becker Contemporary Art, and is currently having an exhibition of monochromatic works, Notations, at the Philadelpia Museum of Art, equally resists the short-attention span of the contemporary mind in his painting. Work like Benson’s and Marioni’s are worthy counters to the one glance and I’m done milieu of contemporary culture.
Benson, in a conversation with Pascale Lamche, compared his own work to a transistor radio, sending as well as receiving signals. Until I encountered this comment from Benson I had been thinking his work was quiet. I still think that. But the notion of a radio got me thinking about communication, clarity, and static, as well as news reports and play-by-play baseball. The metaphor also put me in mind of the San Francisco Renaissance poet Jack Spicer, who thought of the poet as a radio receiving transmissions. The associations I made, in other words, became a part of the viewing experience. Benson doesn’t propose alternate realities. He supposes viewers all have a reality they bring with them to the work. As he put it to David Connearn, when they were discussing monochromatic white paintings, the work is “part of the space that a viewer exists in.” If one comes to Benson’s work in need of quiet, then perhaps that’s what they will find. Likewise, the noise of contemporary American politics could just as easily become part of one’s viewing experience. So much depends upon one’s own signal that day.
Tom Benson: New Work continues at Larry Becker Contemporary Art (43 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia) through March 19.