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Friday, March 01, 2002

Arts & Letters

Linda Benglis

Linda Benglis, Franklin Parrasch Gallery, January 8-February 16

Linda Benglis’s notorious advertisement in the November 1974 issue of Artforum follows her still. Posing naked with an outsized dildo, she called attention to herself in a wildly comic and exuberant message of candidness and erotic joy. Much of her work follows the course of sensuous experimental form, in which shapes appear to transform, extrude, and slather themselves in ways that explore the nature of positive space and its relationship to the outside world. She is a deeply sensual artist, whose craft cannot be separated from a playfulness that has aligned itself to new forms since the 1970s. As she comments in an interview published in the July/August 2000 issue of Sculpture magazine, there is a density of form to which she is attracted:

  I’ve noticed that I’m interested in complex, dense form, the notion of the germ or the egg or the cell, as well as in the unit and what happens when the unit expands, sometimes in a wave – as in the polyurethane installations – sometimes in several knots flying or imploding. Or, as in an explosion, a mass of linear, neon jungle-gym scribbles of light and form….The need to render the unit as a sort of contemplative image of power is there for me. So it’s not any longer a question of formality.

Eroticism is key. Benglis goes on to say that she is “very interested” in the concept of seduction – the point “where the work rides the line between being an element of seduction and an expanse into an unknown area.” She feels that both aspects are necessary for a piece to interest the viewer. While she is known for her participation in 1960s and ‘70s process art, she began as a ceramist while studying art at Newcomb College in New Orleans. This show of seven sculptures, taken from the Chimera series and dating from 1992-95, would appear to take her full circle in her ongoing quest for a language approximating the physical inventiveness of abstract expressionism without succumbing to purely art-historical appreciation. There is an exciting quality, generally speaking, both in the transmutations of form and their surface treatment, which don’t so much describe as enact the forms involved. So forceful an understanding of the relations between abstraction and desire carries with it a deep-seated sense of joy, as well as a focused curiosity about the nature of form itself.

So it happens that Benglis’s art is experimental without losing its contact with the past. Her abstract ceramic sculpture rises and falls, dips and curves in a powerful fashion, and she treats the surface as if it were a painting – undermining our notion of what is appropriate for the external treatment of sculpture. The clay is spread and pinched into exquisitely sensual shapes; the artist understands that the tactility of her medium lends itself to childish pleasure, not only in form but also in process. In Baca (1996), the glazed ceramic form twists and turns to reveal tunnel-like cavities, with pale blue and brown glaze turning the form into something rich and strange. The erotic nature of the curves and orifices is immediately available in the overall gestalt of the figure; there is a wonderful sense of building up and tearing down at the same time, as though the balance that these shapes keep were precarious in their poise. In the Sculpture interview, Benglis states, “I realized what I wanted to do was wrestle with the material and contour the form through my body.” Her visceral attention to clay suggests a primal absorption in form’s relationship to her own physique.

Thirty-two inches high, Winter (Warrior) (2001) consists of three open rectangular forms that force their way upward from a dense base. There is a wonderful mix between the geometric and organic shapes, and pale blue and black glazes emphasize the bulges and straining verticals of the sculpture. One thinks of the expressive shapes of the West-coast-based ceramic sculptor Peter Voulkos, who died recently and also offered a satisfying materiality in his art. Like him, Benglis is wonderfully physical in her approach, as well as being inquisitive about just what makes a form the way it is. How do we experience these tactile surfaces and earthy shapes? How do we look at the role of material itself? Although the show was small and the works of art relatively limited in size, the feeling of the exhibition was direct and strong. These examples from the Chimera series enact change, representing physical transmutations that glory in their materiality and sensuousness. Perhaps this is what the artist has always been seeking: the capture of change in mid-moment, its ability to forge ahead even as it seems to fall apart.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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