Digging in the Dirt

by Robert Cozzolino

Painting as cultivating; painting as tending; painting as digging; painting as plowing; painting as tillage; painting as mulching; painting as composting; as planting; as seeding; as fertilization; painting as propagation; painting as sowing; painting as weeding; painting as aeration; painting as watering; painting as feeding; as controlled burn; as pruning; as blooming; as blossoming; painting as pollination; painting as harvesting; as abundance; as gleaning; painting as hydroponics; painting as nursery; painting as orchard; painting as food for worms; painting as infestation; painting as desiccation; painting as decay; painting as erosion; painting as blighted; painting as nutrient rich; painting as community plot, patch, bog, expanse, potential.

            Can a painting grow or pulse with life? Does it manifest a personality, regard the maker, and subtly adjust itself under scrutiny? Will it breathe or secrete like an organism reacting to its environment? Does it release spores that land on new surfaces and germinate? Do they lie dormant until the right conditions make them proliferate? Kim Benson willfully engages gardening metaphors in painting. She knows plants and the soil well. The creative act and slow growth involved in both realms appeal to her; she cross-breeds their connections. Nurturing plants is about intimacy and care, awareness and observation. It is messy and frustrating, marvelous and surprising. Painting shares these qualities and values. Both enact a process of transformation.

The sixteen paintings featured in Benson’s 2022 exhibition Long Sweet Gone resulted from nearly two years of work to which she devoted most of her waking life (and likely her sleep states).  The imagery includes Saint Mary Magdalene, books and hands, artists’ palettes, skulls, floral motifs, the fanciful sculptural ends of furniture. Some reveal no clear imagery, but present textures like moss and lichen or magnified cells. That is only what is immediately visible. Slower, more meditative time spent with the paintings allows viewers to detect other elements seeping to the surface, bubbling up, festering, multiplying just below vision.

Benson’s paintings show the last layer of a laborious process of becoming, their surfaces realized through hours of attention. Her methods are delicate and precise and violent and destructive. Benson paints by building up the canvas’s ground, layer by layer. Often she will apply thin parallel strips of tape across the surface or portions of the canvas, painting on top of them. After the layer dries, Benson peels back the tape, applies tape in a contrasting direction, paints over that, waits for it to dry, peels, reapplies, paints, and repeats. Sometimes she scrapes and sands back these layers, adding new textures and visual effects. Consecutive layers will stay for a while and then Benson will take back the layers, destroy them to make something unexpected occur. New actions point to unforeseen possibilities. This process of going back allows her to go forward. She compares it to amending the soil. The decay is nutritive.

I suspect that if she had a chance, Benson would reclaim several of these paintings and continue to dig, see what might yield from progressive cultivation. She is not content with stasis and scrutinizes the surfaces to understand what they need. This is not just aesthetic. Benson talks about the paintings as though they are beings trying to realize consciousness.

Sometimes the paint layers break down, distressed under Benson’s methods.  She allows us to see this in the center of Fate (Vanitas) where a jagged hole has appeared. It opens like a rough little cavern to reveal the painting’s exposed layers. It enhances its memento mori subject, decay and rot, the iridescent mystery of decomposition embedded in the substance making an image of a human skull.  How much of this resulted from the natural effects of too much paint or layers that did not bond? Did Benson wear away at a weak spot, dig and poke around the wound, preventing it from healing?  Where others might worry over failure this gash became, in Benson’s work, a key to meaning, an enhancement that was not planned.

Like other painters before her, Benson is fascinated by the paradox of decomposition. Mentioning the process might elicit revulsion; some observers may consider it synonymous with death. Yet life teems in the process and fungi are plentiful where there is organic material to break down. Benson’s studio methods parallel this relationship between growth and decay, and the harboring of life within putrefaction. These cycles are regenerative, and so as she obliterates the appearance of a top layer in a painting, she seeks new avenues for developing what is left in its wake, alive beneath the surface.

Mushrooms are sacred to Benson, as subsistence, as organisms to observe and study, and as plants with the capacity to produce altered states of consciousness. Patches of paintings such as Wall Flower, Surfacing, Full Tilt¸ and Seek You Will Find bloom with patterns of shapes that appear to breed and spread to suggest different forms of fungi. As an organism that blooms at night and carries most of itself below the soil surface, its relationship to Benson’s methods and their meaning is plentiful.

Varieties such as Amanita muscaria are considered toxic, but have been used for millennia for spiritual reasons, inducing what some might call hallucinations and others might characterize as a shift in consciousness. While Benson’s paintings do not attempt to illustrate the experience of altered states, they do share much with psychedelia. Her imagery suggests the potential to see things beyond what they are. In her hands, an image of Mary Magdalene is not a static representation, but actively vibrating and inviting a glimpse below and between its edges. “Vision is often compromised by what we believe in; we’re formed by what we come from; but I want to remain open,” Benson says. Human beings have always found energy and power through visions, transformation. Perception and knowledge arise from accessing multiple states of consciousness.

This is at the heart of how and why Benson’s paintings are experiential, phenomenological. Slow to make, slow to develop, they unfold and manifest from the artist’s body and radiate out to connect with viewers who are rewarded with slow looking and absorption. Taking time before Benson’s paintings changes our sense of breathing, of perception, and we feel how scale and texture shifts our understanding of the whole work of art. The paintings give back, they are generous, though not in an immediate way. As viewers give over to time and focus, they may feel themselves in transformation, the edge of or full experience of an altered state. Benson’s method of taping, painting, peeling – dozens of times – makes for an image that shifts constantly, is never stable. They have an effect like viewing lenticular images, holding concealed imagery that is activated when seen from different angles, changed light.

Perhaps this is why Benson responded to representations of the Penitent Mary Magdalene by Domḗnikos Theotokópoulos (called El Greco; 1541-1614). They were her source material for some of the most ambitious resent paintings. Saints have visions and ecstatic episodes, devotees to Saints have had mystical experiences of faith. Often these experiences are mediated by an image (icon) or manifest as a miraculous appearance. Raised Catholic but long since practicing, Benson is aware of the history of Mary Magdalene as a historical figure and woman whose hagiography has been complicated by the Patriarchal impulses of the Church. In these paintings she reclaims the Saint and places her in a position of power.

Mary Magdalene’s image has been used in a variety of ways throughout history. The sacred elements of her hagiography – ecstasy, pain and pleasure, transcendence, devotion, wisdom – were turned against her to invent a need for repentance based on misogynistic attitudes about women. Some theologians consider her to be the most important of Jesus’s contemporary disciples. Benson is fascinated by Mary Magdalene’s experience as a woman and the ways in which her story has been manipulated or been inspiring at different moments in history. Mary Magdalene’s image, in text and through artists’ interpretations, has driven the ways in which generations have used, digested, internalized her story. Benson’s work boldly recasts her as a mystic and visionary and gives her the gravity she deserves.

Benson’s source material is of course digitized images of images of unique paintings; any of the interim versions may have been processed and copied innumerable times before she accessed them on her computer. She is aware then of how images decay. All digital images of things that we view are versions of something else. We see them through many factors of intervention. This way of looking might seem degraded, but it also speaks of the perpetual desperate relevance of something that has passed down through time and caused one painter to look at another across hundreds of years.

In the relationships between method, meaning and imagery, Benson says she is constantly in a process of discovery. If the images are unsettled, they feel more alive to her and help her to remain skeptical about any one way of resolving things. Her subtractive processes allow her to be open to what could happen as her paintings and their imagery change in unintended ways. “I’m not interested in just painting the image again and again — I like the breakdown and erosion; that’s where it opens,” she says. Ultimately Benson’s work feels ripe to present pathways, portals, vehicles for a shift in consciousness. While she claims to be “troubled by figurative painting,” these paintings all rely heavily on making the body implicit as a trace, embedded and encoded in its substance, and acknowledged in the room.


Robert Cozzolino, the Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, curates collaboratively, in partnership with artists, colleagues, and broad communities. “Starting where you are” is critical to his practice—knowing the immediate context and deeper history of the place in which he works. It also means working with humility and accepting that there is much yet to learn from others. Dr. Cozzolino is drawn to artists that make work about the full range of human experience, especially those who aspire to visually express the intangible, states of consciousness, and a full range of emotions. Although he has worked on topics from the 19th and 20th centuries, he regularly works with contemporary artists in examining history. Born and raised in Chicago, he studied at UIC before completing graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His publications include Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art (2021), World War I and American Art (2016), Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis (2014), and David Lynch: The Unified Field (2014). First trained as a musician, he has played free-improvised music as a percussionist since 1993.


The Synaptic Forest: Kim Benson’s Long Sweet Gone

by Brooks Turner

In the unexpected stillness of Kim Benson’s Long Sweet Gone, I am surprised to find myself sensing the forest even in the absence of trees. Benson’s complex and layered surfaces rarely include literal depictions of nature, coming closest in stenciled marks of paint extruded through flowery lace. But the patterned images of flora, like Benson’s repeated representation of figures and still lives from the Renaissance, are more tools of abstraction, more materiality, than representation. And so, the forest takes shape interstitially, between image and abstraction.

Benson’s process itself sculpts this in-between. In works like Dream of No Ends, Seek You Will Find, and Your Joy Shall Be Complete, Benson painted and repainted different iterations of different versions of El Greco’s The Penitent Magdalene, peeling back stenciled patterns of tape between each layer. The resulting images are vibratory, formed through a dissonant rhythm of repetition and excavation. From this space of variation emanates a mottled, metaphysical light. For El Greco, the light in his The Penitent Magdalene represented immortality, God saving Mary’s soul, while the skull and surrounding landscape act as memento mori. Benson seems to extract this same meeting of the metaphysical and material, but her light is stronger and stranger, recalling sunshine filtering through leaves and branches—still metaphysical but imbued with the wild phenomenology of the forest rather than that of religion. Channeling the gods of dirt, of detritus, of creaking, whispering trees, of mushrooms and mycelia, of rays of sunshine and the darkness in between—an entire pantheon—Benson dematerializes the figure, the landscape, and the skull, before rematerializing their brushstrokes as a matrix of undulating color.

This sense of the matrix appears throughout Long Sweet Gone, brought on by Benson’s process of layering and removing thin strips of tape. In Turn Towards Tomorrow, a screen of diamonds carries the image of hands navigating a book—also extracted from a painting by El Greco. But this image is tentative, deconstructed by the spaces between each diamond. In this way, Benson leads me to contemplate the pixel. The pixel builds portals to untouchable, immaterial, but nonetheless real worlds. Despite its capacity to produce illusionistic depth, the pixel remains at the surface, the image exists as a screen, and beyond it, abstraction. When we see through the pixelated image at the surface of Turn Towards Tomorrow, we find twisting brush strokes, blending colors, an abundance of gestural marks. In this unexpected divergence from the forest, this allusion to digital space becomes an allegory for reconsidering our relationship to physical space: there is gesture, there is metaphysical and immaterial reverie, there is abstraction beyond the images that dance across our retinas. Perhaps we do not need trees in order to see the forest.

Despite its overwhelming abstraction, Circinate Bloom may be the most imagistically forest-like of Benson’s paintings. Vertical gray shapes rise from a field of green, branching out as they approach the top of the canvas. At a distance, the golden, lace texture over a beige ground in the upper-middle of the canvas recalls an autumn canopy of yellowing leaves, filtering midday light. Up close, the green-hued paint extruded through floral lace becomes matted moss. But simultaneously, the straight lines of alternating color and the stable geometry of perfect circles and rectangles recall the idealism of digital space. To be circinate is to curl from the outside in, partially hiding the tip at the center of a spiral. As I contemplate this show, I can’t help but ask, what is curled into the center of Long Sweet Gone? What do we find as we trace the spiraling elements of Benson’s abstractions and imagistic representations?

In a smaller room at the back of the gallery, alongside a number of additional paintings, Benson curated a selection of books impactful to her artistry. Art historical references juxtapose contemporary monographs, the artist’s handmade sketchbooks, and a large book on mushrooms. Scholarship in the last decade has revealed that a network of mycelia connects all plants in a forest. This structure—sometimes referred to as the “wood-wide-web”—entangles diverse flora together as if into a forest-wide superorganism made up of numerous species. Throughout the history of human symbolism, the gestalt of the forest has been of the wild, the outside of human thought and experience, the utterly alien. Flipping through one of Benson’s sketchbooks, I encountered a number of pages containing pressed leaves and paint brushed over and around them. As fungi devoir forest detritus, so too do our neurons devoir sensorial experience.

What thoughts fire through the mycelial web? Long Sweet Gone does not answer this question, but proposes the synaptic forest as a possibility.

Brooks Turner is an artist, writer, and educator based in Minneapolis. Through diverse methodologies that include archival research, collage, digital drawing, and installation, Turner engages the history of fascism in Minnesota as a synecdoche for understanding and challenging the aesthetics of US History and the imperialist ideologies it enshrines. Recent solo exhibitions include Legends and Myths of Ancient Minnesota at the Weisman Art Museum, Uncanny Familiarities of Scenes and People at St. Cloud State University, and Order and Discipline at Ridgewater College. His work has been supported by the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Minnesota Humanities Center, Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Federation, the Minnesota State Inter-Faculty Organization, and the Jerome Foundation. He is the author of A Guide to Charles Ray Sleeping Mime as well as numerous essays published by HAIRandNAILS, Art Papers, and MnArtists. Turner received a BA from Amherst College and MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is currently Chair of Visual Art at St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists and a lecturer at both St. Cloud State University and the University of Minnesota.