Jane Benson: Ecosystems of Knowledge
In various shapes, attitudes, and forms, Jane Benson is engaged with the paradoxical project of capturing the volatile relationship between aesthetics and subjectivity. But unlike the decisive demise of individuality declared by postmodernist theorists in the 1980s or the weighty and often explicit personal artistic explorations associated with identity politics in the 1990s, her approach is more oblique. Neither apocalyptic nor prescriptive, Benson slyly weaves her way through layers of art historical precedents and styles to suggest that our contemporary sense of self is intertwined with art objects that have become performative props and dubious surrogates. Instead of heralding a dead-end of object production or a cynical stance toward the possibility of idiosyncratic self-expression, however, Benson situates both the conundrum of the provisional art object and the problem of forging social subjectivity at center stage. As the carefully crafted mise-en-scène of “The Mews” suggests, it is in consciously dramatizing the changeable and precarious confluence of these two knotty threads that the possibility of communication remains open. Yet, anyone familiar with Jane Benson’s work of the last decade will also note this exhibition’s resonance with many of her previous projects and their aesthetic deliberations. Coursing within her accumulated body of work are the ambiguous and mutually constitutive intersections between the natural and artificial, beauty and ugliness, craft work and mechanical reproduction, institutional frameworks and public contexts. Not only does her work reveal the contradictory layers of signification that contribute to constructing these discursive sites, but it also creates unexpected connections that expand and alter their semiotic field.
In “The Mews,” the artist has transformed Thierry Goldeberg Projects, a contemporary gallery located in New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood, into what initially may appear like a Regency period salon. The two rooms are partially decorated with intricately designed wallpaper, wispy portraits of a delicate young woman adorn the walls, noble portrait busts of family members are displayed on pedestals, an imposing vitrine flaunts treasured family heirlooms, and a requisite swan ambles around a wooden log, suggesting a landed expanse around the venerable estate. This semblance is complicated by the historical permutations of the mainly British use of the word “mews”, which includes a semantic capturing of an irreversible biological process and a designation of architectural complexes that integrated human and animal. Emerging from its etymology in the Latin verb mutare, meaning ‘to change,’ the mews were the location in London where the King’s hawks were kept while moulting between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Subsequently, when the same place became the site for the royal stables, the term came to classify the mixed architectural structures that arose out of necessity, with horse stables below and living quarters above. Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as more members of the upper class began to reside in terraced houses throughout the capital, the word came to denote the small service streets in which the stables were maintained and the servants lived. Despite this rather schematic account, the semantic evolution of the mews reveals a social, political and urban history in which dominant and minor positions constantly re-inscribe their territory in relation to each other.
Benson’s particular interpretation of the mews hinges on its processual character, a state of incompleteness through which radically divergent historical periods, social hierarchies, and artistic genres are brought into the same force field. Through this linguistic channel, she carves out an intermediary zone whose only unchanging aspect is its permanent transformative dynamic. This paradoxical character situates the spectator within a potentially uncomfortable space that merges taxonomies and cross pollinates between different species, orders, and domains of living things. Perhaps most vividly, it mingles notions of ‘polite’ human sociability with those of ‘degenerate’ animality and suggests that neither territory of being is self-enclosed, self-sufficient, or protected from other life forms. Rather, as made visible in pieces such as Venus, I Love You and Wi(n)g Head, the human and animal world intermingle in ways that may initially seem perverse if approached with modernist expectations of purity or autonomy. In the first instance, a prosthetic leg juts out of a propped wooden log while a wingless, resin swan stands impotently to its side while, in the second, a portrait bust of an elegant, long- necked woman topped with a winged hat, is violently disfigured by the insertion of polystyrene into an otherwise perfect marble rendering. In both cases, the ‘natural’ armature of these living creatures is ‘denaturalized’ by re-imagining their limits through a radical altering. The discomforting mélange of human and animal tests the spectator’s expectations of what should be and suggests a new sense of becoming.
Within this aesthetic salon, the slippage between animal and human is extended to a disturbance of the norms of sociability. Historically, the salon was intended as a space for a circumscribed set of social encounters, dependent upon a clear yet unspoken code of conduct, which would contribute to the replication of a distinctively hierarchical power structure. Here, Benson merges the connotations of this earlier model with a deliberation on the contemporary gallery as a site that continues to manufacture normative modes of sociability and power relations through aesthetic means. Most prominently, she disrupts the dynamic of this stratified exchange by retiring the hostess from her duties and, in her stead, leaving only instantiations of her likeness, metonymic stand-ins, or traces of performed gestures that allude to her presence. For instance, both the Rubbings of Me and Wig Head (Anne and Jane) series draw upon familiar markers for the aesthetic representation of the self (e.g., the cameo and portrait bust), while not entirely fulfilling their criteria. In the first, the artist placed muslin textile on her face and used conte-crayon to partially capture her own silhouette, an act that creates a diffuse subject position by transforming Benson into both ‘sitter’ and ‘author’ of the work. This expanded sense of self also materializes from within the portrait’s haziness, as various facial aspects blur together to form an amplified physiognomic territory. Similarly, each of the three marbleized resin portrait busts in Wig Head (Anne and Jane), is constituted from a mélange of the artist and her mother. It is significant that two of the busts are completely devoid of facial aspects; the severe wig-casts perched upon their bald heads acting as the sole sign of individuation. By grafting two distinct psychic and physical armatures onto the same bust and, to all intents and purposes, transforming it into a ‘dumb,’ faceless mannequin, Benson points to the impossibility of maintaining an authentic presence in both the aesthetic and social spheres. As she supplants modernist mechanisms of proximity, immediacy, and self revelation and generates conditions for symbiotic intersubjectivity, it becomes impossible for the artist to maintain the position of a rarified ‘host’ who welcomes the viewer into a transparent exchange with voluble art objects. This brings up the central question at the crux of Benson’s aesthetic practice: What kind of communication is possible when the truth status of the art object is in doubt? Is there any method, or even interest, in mastering an aesthetic experience when it has been diffused into a host of contingent sites?
It would be misleading to reduce Benson’s line of questioning to earlier forms of deconstruction, in the sense of providing a demystifying ‘reveal’ of a hegemonic aesthetic apparatus. This type of critique, initiated as a contestation of institutional spaces by artists like Hans Haacke, Lawrence Weiner, Michael Asher, and Mel Bochner and continued as interventions into public space by the likes of Jenny Holtzer, Barbara Kruger, and Krystof Wodiczko is not sufficiently supple to convey her distinct concerns. On the contrary, as made visible in Dead Swan Wallpaper, Yellow Room (Mother), and Two Left Wings (Bling Wings), Benson is predominantly interested in the potential of fracturing the limits of art practices (e.g., minimalism, conceptual art, craft) that emerged from the disintegration of modernism before becoming segregated and solidified as established ‘positions’ in their own right. To this end, it is important to foreground Benson’s frequent use of cutting as a strategy that is both critical of aesthetic boundaries and constitutive of aesthetic possibilities. For example, covering one wall in front room of the gallery, the installation Dead Swan Wallpaper consists of an elegant blue and white paper, delicately incised by hand to bring into relief the inscribed, serialized swan pattern. In cutting out the swan silhouettes in a repetitive labor-intensive process, Benson fabricates small sculptural objects that sit on top of the paper’s surface while revealing the white wall behind it. Meanwhile, the walls of the back room are almost completely concealed by Yellow Room (Mother), mustard yellow wallpaper with baroque leaf designs and imitative incisions that transform it into riotously burgeoning foliage whose bounty pulls it forcefully toward the floor. Situated in the middle of this faux flora is the installation Two Left Wings (Bling Wings), a provisionally propped glass vitrine housing a sculpture of gold leaf swan wings and partial facial cast of the artist bolstered by two Styrofoam cups. The display of this bizarre array of fragmentary artifacts within an explicitly gendered room, which also elides the feminine with (a crafted construct) of the natural, may lead to multiple interpretations. Is this a commentary on the situation of women within the salons – at once empowered and entrapped in a (gilded) domestic sphere? Or perhaps an engagement with a modernist sculptural tradition, transformed from Constantin Brancusi’s heroic auratic objects into spectacular yet (flightless) impotence? And how do we account for the insistence on the cut, which evokes a spectrum of references that position her gestures within a polyvalent post-minimalist semantic field?
Indeed, in both Dead Swan Wallpaper and Yellow Room (Mother), Benson’s cutting techniques resonate with the integration of the art statement into the institutional support (Lawrence Weiner’s wall removals) and the attack against all architectural frameworks (Gordon Matta-Clark’s anarchitecture), the relinquishment of authorial control to forces of gravity (Robert Morris’s felt pieces) and the absorption of authorial voice into a distinctly feminine sphere (Miriam Schapiro’s femmages). Against such mutually exclusive positions, which often situate conceptual practices as operating in a different sphere from feminist ones or public interventions from institutionally motivated ones, Benson endows the cut with the power of multiplicity. It is telling that, in both installations, she creates three levels of patterning (wall, wallpaper, and sculptural object) that echo each other as a dialogic system of presence and absence and suggest that any one ‘template’ can produce multiple codes. Physically, the cut is an act of intense manual labor that never divides the work into two disparate objects and, through its compulsive reiteration, has as much potency to ‘harm’ or impact the artist as alter the piece. Conceptually, it initiates a series of new offshoots whose dynamic defies linear logic (from artist ‘outward’ to world) to enfold every element in the artistic equation and whose subsequent direction is not foretold. Indeed, in these interventions, Benson maintains the distributive logic that flows through the entire exhibition by intertwining craft with mechanical reproduction, tropes of femininity with ciphers of masculinity, allusions to opticality with those of a bodily negotiation of space, and questions of institutional framing with allusions to the constitution of the public sphere. Paradoxically, while the cut is a formative element in the configuration of this expanded field, there is an uneasy sense that these elements are simultaneously held together by tenable threads that may unravel with only the gentlest tug.
By situating “The Mews” across a temporal and semiotic expanse, which reaches back to previous historical periods and incorporates them within the contemporary moment, Benson simultaneously raises the question of how aesthetic experience was reduced to the status of the object and tries to generate different conditions for its constitution and absorption. As a provisional conclusion, it seems appropriate to evoke the image of the orchid and the wasp, offered by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, to represent an immanently interconnected, heterogenous process of subjectification. In this biological example, we learn that orchids have genealogically developed to attract wasps by sending out chemical and visual cues that elicit sexual behavior in the insect. When a wasp lands on the flower and tries to copulate with its labellum, pollen becomes attached to the wasp’s head and is transported and disseminated to other flowers. Through this process, the orchid and wasp become a composite body, or in Deleuze and Guattari’s words, their mutual constitution is like a “capture of code…a veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp. The result of this biological interpenetration is that, “Each of these becomings brings about a reterritorialization of one term and the reterritorialization of the other; the two becomings interlink and form relays of circulation of intensities…” Resonating with this image, Benson’s aesthetic practice of the last decade engages with the cross-pollination of identities, discourses, and concepts that occur through and around objects that have lost their claim to objectivity and have transformed into broader ecosystems of knowledge.
Nuit Banai is an art historian and critic based in Boston and New York City. She teaches modern and contemporary art at Tufts University/School of the Museum of Fine Arts.