Lynda Benglis Retrospective at Dublin's Museum of Modern Art
Current work at Cheim& Read
Pretty in Pink.
A vintage poured piece.
New York Show at Cheim & Read
By Charles Giuliano
December 15, 2009
This is prime time for the sculptor and video artist, Lynda Benglis (born 1941). Simultaneously, she is featured with new work at Cheim & Read, in Chelsea, through December 19, and is the subject of a retrospective slated to tour the United States in an expanded version (venues and dates not yet announced) that is on view in Dublin at the Irish Museum of Modern Art through January 24. She is featured on the cover of the December issue of Art in America.
Although she has had a distinguished and diverse career with work in many experimental media, arguably, her fame or infamy boils down to one outrageous photograph. An ad actually published in 1974 in Artforum.
The ad was set to run in the first issue of the newly installed editor Ingrid Sichy. Arriving just before deadline she scrapped what had been planned by her predecessor and playing beat the clock commissioned fresh material reflecting her own vision and taste. Among the decisions was whether to run the ad. It took balls, so to speak, and is now one of the most notorious ever published by an art magazine.
It depicted an image of the then young artist, a babe, naked, leaning back and smiling at us provocatively through shades. One hand was poised over her crotch, clutching in an ersatz act of masturbation, an enormous dildo. It was an over the top statement about a woman's chutzpah in trying to make it in the male dominated art world. It was an amusing and insightful example of a feminist statement that even guys liked. But, perhaps, for all the wrong reasons.
In the decades since one might debate whether the bold and risky gesture enhanced or damaged her career. It might have been the equivalent of that Irish Banshee, the bald Sinead O'Conner, tearing up an image of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. What has she done lately?
The Benglis attack ad has earned her a spot on the A list of academic discussion of feminist art history. Surely it is a standard image in every professor's avant-garde, slide show. Of course, discussed in a learned manner with nary a smarmy smirk.
Even, and perhaps especially, without the image (that issue of Art Forum is a collector's item) the work of Benglis has always been interesting and provocative on its own terms. As is often the case, however, reputations and popular appeal for artists gets tweaked by biography, narrative, and a juicy back story.
It challenges us, all too predictably, to make a case for van Gogh as not just the ear, Gauguin as more than running off to Tahiti or a dwarfed Lautrec beyond the injured legs. In that tradition we are arguing that Benglis is more than the dildo.
Actually, we will stash the phallus, oh that ever so popular theme of penis envy, close the shrine of Priapus, stop referencing Alcibiades and what he did to all the Herms before sailing the next day for Syracuse, and discuss Benglis as an artist. Sigh.
During decades of exposure to the work it has been consistently provocative, inventive and engaging.
This new display at Cheim & Read continues the issues and themes of her practice. Yet again, she is working with free form, abstract, relief using experimental materials. Some are dark, black and seemingly weighty. Upon close inspections they seem to be created by snarling and knotting masses of rope. There is the illusion that some material has been poured over to solidify them. But when nobody was looking a quick tap test revealed that they are likely to have been cast in metal.
If these are the "serious" works there are also examples of brightly colored pieces in pink resin. We assume that these are the playful, gay, or feminine (not feminist) works. Pink is so girly and Barbie. Where the black pieces conform to no geometry the pink ones have half spheres as their shape.
Why she has made these distinctions, seeming going in two simultaneous directions in one show, is a matter of speculation. There are more questions here than answers. There is a sensual spontaneous enjoyment of how the works look and fit into the space. There is no narrative or story line to that other than looking. They are indeed pleasing to the eye and evocative to our senses.
Over her career perhaps the best and strongest works were the poured ones. She used metallic foam in a manner that seemed to give them weight and mass. Like flowing fields of lava. They were poured on floors, filled corners, or projected from walls.
Then there were works that involved being tied into bows and knots covered with bright color and glitter. Again she was pushing the feminine/ feminist axis having fun tweaking us with a guessing game. She has always been irreverent enough to send up feminist topes with a bit of tongue in chic.
Which is why she is still my kind of babe, a genuine art world pinup. You go girl.
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