whitehot | Lynda Benglis @ MOCA Grand Avenue
The first comprehensive solo exhibition of works by Lynda Benglis in more than 20 years, MOCA’s retrospective meanders through 40 captivating years of the work of this American artist, presenting evidence of her dynamic versatility, as well as tantalizing clues to the motivation behind her art. Spanning the years from the mid-1960s to 2009, the exhibition includes numerous examples of her sculpture as well as three videos, still photography, and selected ephemera.
After earning her BFA at Newcomb College, now part of Tulane University, Benglis made her debut on the New York art scene in the late ‘60s, with her poured latex and foam pieces. Her arrival represented a feminine counterpoint to the fusion of painting and sculpture associated with Process Art and Minimalism, produced by the male-dominated establishment.
Moving paint from the wall to the floor, and incorporating color into her three-dimensional work, Benglis effectively ignores the delineation between painting and sculpture, creating a new hybrid art form. In art that takes chances and disregards convention, Benglis is in turn contemplative, irreverent and playful, pushing the organic form into something teasingly provocative. Defying the constraints of Modernism, resisting the sharp aesthetic of Minimalism, her work seems to take a stand on the physicality of form, examining the movement inherent in different materials and creating a study of frozen fluidity. Experimenting with a broad spectrum of materials throughout her career, Benglis has produced a compelling variety of work. Early pieces in beeswax and resin morphed into large polyurethane shapes in the ‘70s, and later, forays into metals like gold leaf, zinc and aluminum.
Her earlier sculptures are characterized by flowing colors and erotically evocative melting shapes, traced to her Greek roots and themes from her childhood. On entering the exhibit, the viewer is confronted with Blatt (1969) -- one of the artist’s signature works on the floor, created from Day-Glo pigments and poured latex, and Wing (1970) -- a free form sculpture in cast aluminum, jutting from the wall like a rush of molten lava. Just two examples from a period in which Benglis was employing unconventional commercial media like latex, plastic, polyurethane, the pieces succeed in capturing movement and free-flowing energy. A paradoxical mix of unleashed organic shape and the artist’s evident manipulation, these sculptures are charged masses of electric form and texture – in the case of Blatt -- also incorporating bold color. In a similar vein to Blatt, the suitably entitled, Night Sherbet (1969) made of poured brownish polyurethane foam, (9 x 97 x 62 in.) is reminiscent of a melted puddle of ice cream.
Her work is adventurous in terms of form, as well as the interplay of unexpected media. Hoofers I and II (1971-72) are two bone-like columns constructed of aluminum screen, incorporating red cotton, bunting, plaster, acrylic and encrusted glitter - which is reflected, sparkling on the wall. Dramatically concealed behind a curtain, Phantom (1971), is a sculptural work of five elements constructed of polyurethane foam in ivory tones with phosphorescent pigments (approx. 8.5 x 35 x 8 ft). Their shapes, reminiscent of plasma or a fungus, protrude from the wall, illuminated by a black light.
Her photography and video provide an intriguing counterpart to the sculpture on view, giving a glimpse into her persona. Secret 1, Secret 2 and Secret 3 (1974-75), a montage of Polaroid photographs, capture silly sex scenes, dildos featured prominently, in gender twisting playfulness. Included is the controversial 1974 Artforum ad, which generated so much buzz -- in which Benglis, poses nude with an over-sized dildo – a blatant rebuke of the prevailing patriarchal New York sculpture scene. Among the videos in this retrospective, The Amazing Bow Wow, (1976) plays on the premise of a circus act. Featuring a character in a dog costume and a woman blowing bubbles, the video is accompanied by the actuality sound of a summer day.
Over the years, Benglis graduated to employing an ever-expanding range of media to express her evolving vision. Her early pieces in beeswax -- a somewhat vulnerable material -- seem almost tentative compared to the potent statement made by some her larger sculptures rendered in more robust media. Leaving the sensibility of the ‘70s behind, soft poured shapes give way to the pleated forms of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Her later pieces, many of them metallic, are articulated with angles and folds, echoed by dramatic shadows cast in light and shade. In Zanzidae (1979), Benglis compiles wire, mesh, enamel, glass and plastic. Mounted on the wall, the fan-shaped piece is decorated with buttons, straws and sequins in a concoction foreshadowing the style of Nick Cave.
In the years surveyed in this important retrospective, Lynda Benglis developed and refined her own distinct oeuvre, both intersecting and transcending the confines of post-minimalist and feminist art. A distinct sense of the artist’s personality pervades her work. Engaging in a vast range of disciplines and media, it appears that Benglis approaches her art with gusto, like an explorer on a quest for adventure, heedless of borders. The viewer is fortunate to tag along.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief