by Arwen Wilder
Architects and designers, gardeners and software developers try to build the future. Archaeologists, historians and geologists sort through the wreckage of time and disasters trying to map and interpret the ruins of the past. Kim Benson does both. She is like a terrible volcano. And the wind. And the waves. I love Kim’s work because it is formal and haunting, so abstractly complicated with layers of figure. I will call them collages because they are made of many paintings. I can see in each one evidence of layers and layers of past paintings, each layer probably whole and beautiful in its own moment. And these collages, though they are hung on the wall, in a show, like a finished thing, seem like brief suspensions, or snapshots. They are not solid and fixed, but are instants between the many pasts they had: the layers of paintings they were, and their potential futures: what they might become with the additional layers or stripping away they might endure if Kim gets her hands back on them. I love how some parts are as thick as a beehive with pockets of paint. They tell me of time and decay and reckoning. Looking at them is like sorting through layers which makes them seem like they are about trying to see.
I try to write about one clearly…In the low center is a cauldron or uterus of intense blue, is it a beaker of poisonous iridescence with fumes rising? or a watery earth squished and smoking? I feel it like a lead weight in my belly, pulling down on my insides. To the right is a stem of alternating leaves, the shape them pulled away from the top layer, revealing a different set of leaves, some verdant painting too covered to be made out except for its bright green leafiness. Leaves made of leaves. To the left of the blue is a rock or clay platter with a naked mother and many naked babies around her. This seems like a reference to some famous painting that I don’t know and I can’t tell if it is horrific or beautiful, all those babies strewn around her. I can’t see her head because there is another painting over, or maybe under, a bulbous patch of pink and white lace layers, on top of black and white lace layers, as if people wallpapered with lace. I look to the thin yellow frame to tell me what is important here but it seems like it is its own decaying structure rather than a valuing of something else. In the upper left, there is a green layered egg-shape cut out that when I look closer is the corner of a room or awning covered in a canopy of something else, there are the lurid pink shapes, flower petals? rabbit ears? are those roses stamped on top or revealed when an over-layer was distressed? And the whole thing is sort of framed by a balustrade of what might be decaying blue plaster, and something like a smear of pink cloud on the upper right. The more I look the more I am distracted by texture, the less sure I am of what came first or what things are. The more I write the more vague the language gets. The more I have questions instead of specific descriptions or images.
Do they suggest inevitable collapse? romanticize dereliction? question progress? Do I let my teenage daughter dye my grandmother’s lace tablecloth black and cut it into strips to fringe her t-shirt? Are these paintings essentially nostalgic or sacrilegious? What are the legal implications and the political ones of these partial and layered realities?
My great grandmother knew how to tat, to crochet lace. I have watched the painstaking sorting to keep the tiny strands separate, to coax flowers and leaves from thread, forcing plants into repeatable pattern while envying their wildness.
My neighborhood of twenty years is Lake and Chicago. The buildings were brick, built sturdily enough to house over 100 years of retail dreams. They were burned in a couple of nights during the uprisings after George Floyd’s murder. The city knocked them down so they wouldn’t collapse into traffic. But it is too expensive to actually clean them up and rebuild, so they will sit like that, piles of brick and twisted steel i-beams, remnants of chairs and bits of things almost discernible as separate objects but not entirely. They are more notable as a part of the rubble pile than in their former simple use. Those lots are more inspiring, revealing and full of potential in their decay than in their incarnation as cheap cell phone stores. I stare at those piles the same way I look at Kim’s paintings/collages. I feel some emotional connection to the elements, appreciation of the beauty of parts or whole, some sadness at their current state, some wonder at their scale and the balance they have found, some desire for systematic excavation.
But the excavating might be my own mind and memory: that attic with the antique dresses we used to try on, the slanting dusty light and dollhouses, my great grandmother’s lace, the veils and cobwebs of my memory, if I could brush something away and see clearly, but I am looking through the stripes of light in a slatted barn, or at the way light filters through a forest canopy, I am reminded of trying to see clearly before I had eye surgery.
These paintings/collages, they were made and are being shown in Minneapolis in 2020. I come to them with the loneliness and homesickness and fear of this year. To look at the layers of the past is inherently political, to uncover them, reconcile them, show them, to live with them is essential.
Currently, Arwen Wilder dances, teaches, and parents in her living room in South Minneapolis. Her most major endeavor is collaboration with Kristin Van Loon as HIJACK.
Topographies of Vision and History: Kim Benson’s Hell Daisy in Relief
by Brooks Turner
Entering Benson’s exhibition, Hell Daisy, is overwhelming, chaotic, and psychedelic. Colors and imagery and textures vibrate across and through surfaces sculpted with paint. In these works, the paint is made simultaneously physical and illusory.
Caked layers of paint feel to my eyes like a coarse carpet; curved lines recessed feel carved; thick but precise protruding shapes feel cast—in each surface is the language of sculpture as much as paint, a tension between what is in relief and what is depicted through image. Subverting the expected historical tradition that would sculpt a subject from the surface of a flat panel in order to give it three-dimensional emphasis, Benson’s sculpting of paint does more to obscure her imagery than to emphasize it. I think of relief as a tool for exploring a particular subject’s relationship to a world. The subject and the world are rendered in the same sheet of material and thus are ontologically cut from the same cloth. That which I would expect from a relief is absent in Benson’s work, and yet it clearly uses a language of sculpture. And so, I am left to wonder: representationally and metaphorically, what is in relief? I believe the answer to this question lies in Benson’s examination of the history and ontology of a still life.
I first noticed history: In Loss of Certainties, the underlying imagery of a skull, book, and woman feels pulled from a baroque painting; in Homecoming (Vanitas), the stylization of a woman’s head rendered on top of a simple pentagon house feels somewhere between ancient Greece and Henri Matisse. Fragmented images in In the Garden of Darkness and Dreams, are reminiscent of horrors presented by Hieronymus Bosch, while another fragment seems more akin to simple, contemporary still lifes, such as those by David Hockney.
What is the essence of a still life? To me, it all comes back to a visual experience of the everyday. The things that are around the artist become immediately available for painterly representation—and as such, a still life becomes a synecdoche for the world the artist inhabits, assembled from the everydayness of that world. Benson extends the language of the still life through impressing patterned fabrics into thick painted surfaces, leaving a textured representation of a piece of the everyday. In this way, Bone Flowerpresents a double still life, simultaneously depicting the everyday through image and through stenciled impressions of fabric, fabric that I imagine once decorated a table or hung as curtains over a window, drapery in its own real-world still life.
But the relationship to drapery does not end here: in several paintings, the layering of stenciled lines and broken image become curtains. This is most clear in two of Benson’s paintings, Loss of Certainties and Celebration (Still-life of Nymphs, Goats, and Grapes). In Loss of Certainties, the central woman is blurred through the layered re-painting of the same figure. I imagine Benson painted a layer, put down tape or some other kind of stencil, painted a layer, then peeled off that stencil, then placed a new stencil, then paint, then peeled, then stencil, paint, peel, etc…. Each stenciled layer—to me a curtain—reveals the evolution of Benson’s work, its history of materiality and image. But I also imagine reaching out and parting each curtain, and as each one moves to the side, a different version of that same baroque woman moves with it. At the end of this chain of curtains is a baroque painting that I assemble in my mind’s eye through fragments of the whole. Celebration is rendered with a similar style of crisscrossing lines stencil-carved into previous layers of a painting. Here, the image of billowing fabric appears more immediately drawn on the work’s surface in curving lines that move horizontally across the bottom of the composition. As my eyes move vertically, the curtain dissipates as if into a cloud of smoke. Ghostly objects find vague form through the grey. Of the items mentioned in the painting’s subtitle, I can locate the grapes, an arm, and what might be a foot—here the painted origin is even further obscured such that the image is inaccessible in full behind the layers of paint. In both of these works, I can’t help but wonder: is there an authentic painting, an origin, that looks like this in the world? Or is it merely a conjuring of a style from the past as a point of contemplation? Is history real and physical or an illusory stream of images richochetting from eye to eye across time?
A painting downstairs Corona (Still Life), presents a strikingly different materiality. The surface is smooth and glossy, as if painted in thin layers and covered over in a plastic resin, subverting the strong sculptural sense of the rest of the work in this exhibition. Patterns appear and then fade away, scraped and eroded, leaving overlapping stains of color and texture. Here, history is acid more than accumulated layers, eating away at the clarity of imagery. Spheres of red and blue pepper the surface of the painting, perhaps the most clear image represented, which from the title I understand to be individual coronaviruses. “Corona” describes a spherical halo that extends from and surrounds a central body—like the corona of the sun, which can only be seen with special instruments or during a total solar eclipse. The still life of the coronavirus implies its presence, its everydayness, and yet we can take a step further and contemplate the stilling life that Covid-SARS-2 brings through death. And suddenly the answer to my initial question begins to take shape.
Benson’s process of relief is in excavating into more than in building up. But even as excavate conjures the idea of digging into history, its etymology comes from Latin meaning “to hollow out,” and nothing is hollow in Benson’s work—it is chaotic and messy, mysterious and magical. Perhaps her process of cutting into, both physically and metaphorically, is more akin to autopsy, which comes from the Ancient Greek autopsia, meaning to see for oneself. Even in the abstraction, obscuration, and erasure that Benson builds into each painting, vision, the act of seeing, is central. Hell Daisy, as an exhibition, puts the act of seeing into relief; it makes the phenomenology of vision material and present, coming into focus against the fabric of history. To situate this simultaneous investigation of seeing and history within the same sculpted surface, Benson disrupts the idea of history as monolithic, of truth as absolute, of fact as representational. Through Hell Daisy we feel with our eyes the topography of history—something which is simultaneously micro and macro, local and global, private and public, flat and dense, singular and multiple, fragmented and whole, true and false.
Brooks Turner is an artist, writer, and educator. His recent work engages the history of fascism in Minnesota and has been supported through a 2020 Artist Residency in the Weisman’s Collaboration Incubator, a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant, a Minnesota Humanities Center Innovation Lab Grant, and a Rimon: Minnesota Jewish Arts Council Project Support Grant. Since 2014, he has taught sculpture, drawing, and painting at the University of California, Los Angeles, St. Cloud State University, Ridgewater College, and is currently Chair of Visual Arts at St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts. In 2017, he wrote A Guide to Charles Ray Sleeping Mime, published with Paperleaf Press, and continues to write essays for Hair and Nails Gallery and Temp/reviews.
by Cameron Downey
Hell Daisy speaks.
And were one to decipher its tone, “Just enough darkness” might be a first phrase uttered. Its voice ushered in by the flock of Kim Benson’s ecology-sized paintings. What at closer glance emerge to be vases and small gestures of life, first crane and haw as life itself. Their size could be to thank, as grids of fabric-like pattern burn across canvas, seeded only in more dark, lovely layers revealed at its root.
From the H&N Gallery front room, “Right where you are” crows deep ephemeral blues ventilated by lace. And there’s always enough room to breathe, be it quickly.
A mix of generous additions, meticulous takes and beaded desserts makes one realize that Benson’s process is nearly a lineage. The smallest vignettes are almost always the most critical. Hers is giving in its objectivity— to tell us how things were and simultaneously will be– made all the more tender by an omnipotent presence of black.
For this, Benson’s paintings beckon commandments. They’re delicious in a willingness to tell more. To give a whole world’s story when yet you’ve only just met.
Hell Daisy, in all its glamour and grandeur, reckons with the question of process, of how to tell a genesis. And on the first day we might not have known exactly what just happened, but we’re sure it will end in smoke. And bloom.
Cameron Downey is an undergrad at Columbia University pursuing studies of Environmental Science and Visual Art. Born and raised in Minneapolis, MN, she oscillates between the midwest and Harlem, NY. Among artmaking, she spends time as a writer, advocate, curator and dreamer.
Downey’s art has previously been exhibited by HAIR+NAILS in: HAIR+NAILS at 9 Herkimer (Brooklyn) in 2019 and FUTURE FUTURE (HAIR+NAILS MPLS) (Jan/Feb 2020) and in her solo show “Three Things Last Forever” (Aug/Sep 2020). Downey guest curated HOLDING SPACE, an exhibition of video, image, light and sound, in the H+N frontyard (summer 2020).
Musings About Art in the Time of Covid: Alice
by Mason Riddle
Every now and then it happens. I am in a gallery and, suddenly, I am Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, being overtaken by a new sensory experience, where one artwork makes me larger and another makes me small. Usually this Eureka moment washes over me with long-dead artists like Piero Della Francesca, Giovanna Garzoni, Claude, Vuillard, Hilma af Klint, early Gorki, Frida Kahlo, Agnes Martin or Rothko. It happened again, recently, on my first and only visit on the last day of Kim Benson’s exhibition Hell Daisy. I still don’t know what Hell Daisy means. No matter. There was no braking of my visual fall, no halting the curiosity pill, no denying that a transference from the heavy-handedness of daily life into the hallucinatory undercurrent of seeing – had happened.
Hell Daisy comprised more than a dozen fearless, associative paintings that left any responsibility of assigning “meaning” up to the viewer. Not content to be solely abstract, the oil on canvas paintings insisted on being obliquely narrative no matter what their layered and tactile compositions did — or did not — reveal. One or two incorporated representational elements such as Loss of Certainties. Here, through an opening in moire-like veil of paint, which spatially sits right on the painting’s surface, like a voyeur we see a human skull and two books. The moire-like veil also obscures a female figure, suggesting the books and skull are momentos mori.
In others, such as Fortune (Still-Life) and Vineyards of Stone (Still-Life) the titles push the viewer to identify representational elements, in my case, with little success. Although not formally a diptych, the two paintings were simpatico in composition and color, and like sirens at sea, lured the viewer to abandon ship and dive into their spatially ambiguous patterns, spaces and forms. One darker and more mysterious, and the other lighter and more ethereal, the two paintings of considerable scale are beautiful (I am for beauty), resolved and hallucinatory.
On an even larger scale, Terminal Beach (Goldenrod, Wings, and Dust) and In the Garden of Darkness and Dreams were confounding and seductive in their spatial complexity, uncommon palette and, again, in their associative capacity to compel the viewer to conjure up a narrative. In the former, a suspended wing-shaped form is golden in hue, but the patterns and textures obscure any obvious narrative. (Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire immediately flashed in my memory). In the latter, a glimpse of a naked, kneeling figure, surrounded by a circle of small naked figures, anchors a composition of abstract forms and shifting space. Is this a nod to the original sin, or is it a distant cousin to John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Maybe neither, but it underscores Benson’s skill to create highly associative work.
Perhaps Benson’s tour-de-force is Celebration (Still-life of Nymphs, Goats and Grapes). A grisaille-hued moire veil shimmers before our eyes as if in a breeze. Standing static like stone, the painting still perceptively moves before us, flowing upward. Although ‘still-life’ is referenced in the title, the work suggests more a landscape with a low horizon line. With Celebration, the hookah-smoking caterpillar had given the call — to me — (thank you Grace Slick).
When I taught critical writing, students would ask how does a writer, when reviewing a show, conclude that a work of art is “good”? This is a highly subjective process, no matter how objective writers/critics are to be. One’s name is on the review, after all. For me it is when the triumvirate of the artist’s idea, skill and material coalesce into an intangible, seamless whole. This is intuitive. Kim Benson has achieved this with most of the works in Hell Daisy. Any artist can make one good work; the challenge is to continue to make work of consequence during the good, the bad, and the ugly times. It doesn’t get much uglier than 2020. Yet, Benson has turned out a smart and compelling body of work.
Within minutes of entering Hell Daisy, I thought of Alice, not yet knowing I would be asked to write about the show, and thus, not being able to give it a second look. Today, with Alice in my head, I found my family’s 1915 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which I had inherited as a ten-year old, with its original, 1865 stunning color-plate illustrations by John Tenniel. I sat down and read the first 50 pages before writing. Thank you, Kim Benson.
Mason Riddle is a writer on the visual arts, architecture and design and an appraiser of fine and applied arts. Her writing has been published in a range of publications including Art in Print, Artforum, Dwell, Elle Decor, Hyperallergic, Metropolis, Modern, Photograph, Rain Taxi, Sculpture, Star Tribune, Surface Design and Walker Arts Magazine, among others. She was the former director of Two Rivers Gallery, the MN Percent for Art in Public Places program, The Goldstein Museum of Design and Public Relations consultant for the MN Design Center. He has a M.A. in Art History and Museum Practice.