Sadie Benning: Green God
Mary Boone Gallery
April 28 to July 29, 2016
745 Fifth Avenue (at 58th Street)
New York, 212 752 2929
Callicoon Fine Arts
April 28 to July 29, 2016
49 Delancey Street (at Eldridge Street)
New York, 212 219 0326
“Being thus arived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees & blessed ye God of heaven, who had brought them over ye vast & furious ocean, and delivered them from all ye periles & miseries therof, againe to set their feete on ye firme and stable earth, their proper elemente.”
-William Bradford Of Plimoth Plantation (ca 1630–51)
It’s a wild mind that riffs off a 17th-century devotional/historical text as source material for a contemporary painting exhibition. But as a road map to its thought-corridors, the vintage Pilgrim images that appear collaged onto Mayflower Now (2015) and Coin (2015) are a key to understanding the questing journey of Sadie Benning’s pilgrim soul, recently on view in twin exhibitions at Callicoon Fine Arts and Mary Boone Gallery. That these large, visually seductive, and lushly colored works are freighted with pointed critiques of organized religion, among other concerns, only ups Benning’s philosophical ante. And if a reductive vocabulary of pictographs and collaged islands of glistening color are the bullets in his magazine, the approach is clear — simpler is better when you want to hit the target.
Benning’s ripped-from-the-headlines commentary on the North Carolina transgender bathroom-access debate hews particularly close to home; he transitioned from female to male in recent years. In the show’s signal image, The Crucifixion (2015), on view at Callicoon, he lays out his precis: a nearly seven-foot-tall, Prussian blue, skirt-wearing female figure is nailed to a black cross, on a blood-red background. The figure has small breasts and a jutting form below the waist that can be read as either a baby-bump or a steatopygous rump. But it is the disproportionately large, and plainly phallic head that serves to deliver the message here: we are all in North Carolina. The figure as a whole also cites the gender-indicating pictographs on public restroom doors.
Not all of the works in these shows telegraph their politics, though an abstract work like Nature (2015) seems to witness the aftermath of a hunt. Worm God (2015) is another abstraction, its palette, form and technique suggestive of Matisse’s cut-outs. Benning assembles these works by mixing acrylic paint with resin or a milk-based casein, applying it to canvas, then cutting out shapes to be collaged. As such, there’s precious little painting qua painting, with nary a brushstroke in evidence.
Worm God is displayed along with six other God-paintings, all along a line on one wall at Mary Boone, to form what serves for a frieze. Though they are separate works, there is a thematic harmony, which lends a cinematic storyboard effect to their cheek-by-jowl placement. Grey God (2015) works off a gravestone-rubbing vibe, but shares with the two Green God paintings (both 2015) at Callicoon the pictorial design of a child’s clown painting.
Benning is clearly not shy about mixing styles; the monochrome Guts (2015) looks back to an earlier series that first caught this observer’s attention at Callicoon’s booth at the 2014 NADA New York art fair. And The Owl and the King (2015), which dominates one wall at Mary Boone, is one of his most photo-dominated collage-paintings. It also provides a backdrop for his curious inclusion of three-dimensional pagan god statuettes, the type you might find at a flea-market, which sit atop small shelves on the surfaces of this and several of the other paintings. The Owl And The King might also be an homage to Mike Kelley, with its front-and-center image of a neglected Muppet doll splayed Death of Marat-like atop a discarded cardboard shipping box.
Several of the works represent an indulgence in Pop art; The Boxer (2015), Priest (2016) and Fruits (2015) are the least successful works among these groupings of different stylistic approaches, especially with Priest, where the juxtaposition of a photograph of a priest with a statuette of a pagan god is simply too pat, too illustrative.
The continuing presence of filmic images, whether sourced from found newspaper photos or from what appear to be family snapshots, is a historical thread that runs through Benning’s family history to his earliest art world forays. He was born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1973. Benning’s father James is a maker of independent art films and a longtime CalArts professor. At 19, he was given a show of memorably crude but arrestingly compelling video works at the Museum of Modern Art. A year later he was selected for inclusion at the 1993 Venice Biennale.
Still, Benning’s pilgrim journey from downtown darling to selling out an uptown solo show at blue-chip Mary Boone (and also at his primary gallery, Callicoon) has taken 20 years. So the hot today/gone tomorrow syndrome will definitely not apply here. And given the broadly diverse range of his practice — video, painting, multi-media works — we’ll likely be enjoying many new facets of Sadie Benning for decades to come.