In her solo show at Half Gallery, Trudy Benson presents easel-size paintings that continue her riff on the digital imagery of early paint software like MacPaint, SuperPaint, and Painter. Working in layers with pattern and line, and using saturated color, Benson creates abstractions that seem to jump off the canvas. Her paint handling is fun and flamboyant, and references 1980s-style post-modern graphics (squiggles, drop shadows, patterns used in architectural renderings) that, in their time, playfully fused the geometric pattern and decoration of 1930’s Art Deco and Pop Art. The effect is cheerfully kinetic. In an essay for her forthcoming show at Bernard Ceyson in Luxembourg, Wallace Whitney writes that “there is something exuberant rather than programmatic in the paintings: running late, rushing out the door, down the stairs … off to work. The happy push inside of each painting is urban, fun and utterly free.”
[Image at top: Trudy Benson]
Despite the immediate visual and psychological appeal of her work, it’s not entirely clear what besides recreating nostalgic digital imagery Benson is trying to achieve. In a three-question interview with her published by Half, she explains the difference between two painting styles that have influenced her work: Bad Painting and Abstract Illusionism.
Bad Painting was an intentional disrespect of painting trends. Abstract Illusionism has a basis in sincerity, so much so that a lot of the artists weren’t taken seriously. Abstract Illusionism was painting with a very specific set of devices: dropped shadow under a thickly painting floating brush stroke, or a sprayed halo around, but really under a painted shape. I think Bad Painting involves knowing what’s cool in painting and bringing bad taste into the same painting in a chopped and screwed aesthetic. There’s a mixture of high and low to Bad Painting. In Abstract Illusionism, I believe painters like Jack Reilly and Michael Gallagher had a very specific vision that was very sincere. This distance from the work that characterized Bad Painting isn’t there with Abstract Illusionism. I think my work has evidence of influence from both movements. I like to think about bad 90s coffee shop graphic design, spirals and cartoon flames. Elizabeth Murray is an artist who I think stood with one foot in each movement. (I don’t think her work is irreverent in any way, and I don’t like to think about my own work as being irreverent or ironic either.)
If Benson’s work isn’t irreverent or ironic, what is it? The explanation of her process is more compelling.
I think about painting as a series of layers, which never really touch, but influence each other. In my paintings there is no wet-onto-wet painting, and there are a few periods during creation when the work totally stops. The painting has to dry between layers. The result of the intuitively additive process is usually that the layers are informed by each other but not totally aware of each other. There is almost the feeling of a few different styles of painting in one work.
The work does seem to reflect the semi-conscious melding of styles Benson describes, but she doesn’t provide a rationale for the self-consciously bad paint handling in the work at Half Gallery, which starts with spray-painted patterns and ends with thick, rope-like lines of paint squeezed onto the canvas. If the process is slow anyway, why doesn’t she take more interest in the application of paint beyond creating textural contrasts? Is her haphazard manner of masking out areas into wonky shapes and slapping on the paint significant or merely expedient?
There’s no doubt that Benson has developed a unique visual language, but to what end? Her 2015 solo show at Lisa Cooley was galvanizing because the paintings went beyond mere references to digital pastiche. The smaller-scale work at Half Gallery has the signature aspects of those earlier paintings, but raises questions about her larger intent. It will be interesting to find out how she answers them.
“Trudy Benson: Spooky Action at a Distance,” Half Gallery, UES, New York, NY. Through June 18, 2016.
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