Space Jam is recent Pratt graduate Trudy Benson’s first solo exhibition; her large-scale “paintings”—though “paint” is perhaps a more apt description of what they are—occupy their space on the wall aggressively, physically. They are bold and bright, comprised of strokes and smears, dollops and gobs, scumbles, even. Considering that they are the products of a contemporary culture that touts, inspires, and is often comprised of the eye-roll, the esoteric allusion, the ironic appropriation, Benson’s works are refreshingly concrete, genuine. Their ontological status as works of paint on canvas is bound-up in and brazenly inseparable from its physical, material manifestation as such.
Space Jam is visceral and excessive—each canvas appears to be covered with the contents of entire tubes of oil pigment. There are neons and grays, yellows and crimsons, a rainbow of browns which bring to mind everything and anything but mud. Her application of paint seems everywhere intentional: when it cracks, it cracks; when it drips, it drips. It smudges, scuffs and peels, it stands away from the canvas, inserts itself literally into your space, and when it strokes it is as smooth and seamless as a bicycle-frame. To appreciate the works’ materiality is one thing; to recognize that the works are declaratively about their material, and, further, to integrate this very physical experience of art-viewing into an arsenal of experiences which are generally anything but—are critical, sarcastic, disaffected, diluted, self-deprecating—is a truly welcome aberrance.
Benson’s paintings are about the interplay of textures and surfaces; they are about the interaction of material and material. They are both dynamic and static: a drip runs into and is impeded by a chunk, a dry pigment is brushed quickly across a dried, dimpled smear; paint has never seemed so rotund as it does here, has never buckled thus. Benson insists that a painting is simply the meeting of an undulating, modifiable, viscous mucilage, with more of that mucilage. Her “strokes” are oozes of strawberry tooth-paste or purple grout, the cratered surface of the moon, the afterimage of neon light dispersing into sky; they speak to the physical reality of oil in water more than they engage in the precious dialogue between the hairs of a paintbrush and a gessoed canvas.
The impression that Benson’s paintings have physical heft and presence is only exaggerated by her treatment of the canvas. Never has flat seemed so flat, has background backgrounded so effectively, as it does here; you cannot behold a Benson painting without awareness of the marked distinction between pigment and surface. True, canvas is always two-dimensional; it provides a plane onto which the artist projects his or her vision, a vehicle through and by which a viewer is given access to the artist’s representation of reality. And yet, in the traditional relationship between viewer and painting, there is a tacit understanding that the distinction between surface and image-on-surface will be ignored: the constituent elements which comprise the final product—canvas and paint—are subsumed by the transformation of raw material into art. They are no longer “paint on canvas;” they become “a painting.”
Benson rejects this: her use of paint exaggerates, emphasizes, puts into relief and brings to light the fact that the canvas is canvas. The two elemental materials of her paintings are a far cry from unified and united, integrated into one another; her treatment of each, rather, is starkly distinct, and each one draws attention to the fact that it is not the other. This makes it only more evident, more undeniable, more exhilarating, that paint is paint—and at Benson’s hands, what paint it is.
Images: Tape Deck (2010), oil on canvas, 66 x 72 inches; Space Jam 2, oil on canvas, 68 x 62 inches; Pipe Dreams (2010), oil on canvas, 72 x 66 inches. Courtesy of Freight + Volume.