CULTURE

An artist’s resistance against the stereotypes penetrating art and life

One of the most broadly reprinted works of the 1970s is the image of artist Lynda Benglis holding a dildo and looking provocatively out to the viewer. The photo, which after being turned down by Artforum was published in the same magazine as an advertisement of the artist’s exhibition at the Paula Cooper gallery (and producing much controversy in the artworld after its publication), was in fact quite similar to another shocking photo of the artist turned to the viewer with naked buttocks. As one might expect, both images were widely regarded as fitting into the feminist agenda, probably because of their provocative quality and gender-related content. As a female artist in the midst of the feminist movement in art, Benglis did indeed share many of its concerns, but extended them beyond a feminist polemic to address broader issues: shock value, the effect of advertisement on art or stereotyping in general, not just in terms of gender. This included stereotyping art and classifying it across media and artistic movements. Indeed, another renowned and widely published body of work, her expanses of pigmented latex from the late ’60s, shared little with gender issues (although the organic forms which recall the body can be seen as metaphors for femininity) and more with the standard distinction between painting and sculpture. Her «frozen gestures,» a generic name which Benglis applied to those works, was a hybrid between abstract expressionism and process art as well as between painting and sculpture. Never quite one nor the other, the sculptures retained an uncanny balance between opposites and, while mocking and playful, were also critical and speculative. Like the nude images of herself, the expanses of frozen paint were a negation of the orthodoxies permeating both art and life. They brought the viewer closer to the realities of each, honing his perception and making him see through clearer, unbiased eyes. An inquisitive artist, Benglis has experimented with diverse media (photography, video and ceramics) throughout her career; but the basic strands of thought so densely captured in the works of the ’60s and ’70s have remained the same. So has the effect on the viewer. An exhibition of the artist’s works at the Kappatos gallery indicates this continuity. Although the works on view share nothing of the apparent provocation or monumentality of the works for which Benglis is better known in the history of 20th century art, they have grown out of the same principles. The exhibition consists of two different series: the so-called «Patang series,» which consists of a number of collages and paintings on paper from the late ’70s; and a number of small, same-sized drawings of ink and watercolor on rice paper that Benglis made a year ago. The combination makes for an elegant display, and the works are an example of how an artist’s ingenuity and skill show not just in the larger works but in the more bare and less eye-catching ones. Seen together in a single exhibition but hung in separate rooms with taste and a care for detail, the show’s works encourage the viewer to appraise the scope and development of the artist’s work through time. By presenting works with a more or less similar visual effect, the exhibition also prompts the viewer to search for continuity, subtle transformations and those underlying, recurrent ideas which show an artist’s depth of thought. It is addressed to the more sophisticated eye, forgoing dramatic changes and superficial innovations. The Patang series (named after an area in India, a country which Benglis has visited frequently over the past 25 years) was made in the period after her latex rubber and polyurethane works of the late ’60s and before the gleaming, metallized pleats and bows of the mid-’80s. Like the works before them, they challenge the aesthetics of modernism and like the ones which followed they play in unexpected ways with form and material. The works show a juxtaposition of geometric forms – an allusion to modernism – with threads. By alluding both to the purity of modernism and to the design, techniques, and materials associated with crafts, folk art and «women’s work,» Benglis challenges the conventional categories of art just as she had done with the expanses of latex rubber. Possibly influenced by the Pattern and Decoration art movement which was strong in the late ’70s, Benglis created her own version of modernism, one which resonates with feminine overtones but should not be typecast as such. Indeed, Benglis never rejected the precepts of high modernism and, in fact, has always felt indebted to them. She held the abstract expressionists in high regard and learned from their work, particularly the spillover quality, the use of automatism and the artist’s identification with his material. But she never fitted into their style, nor in any other style of her own times including process art, with which she largely came to be associated in the late ’60s. To this day Benglis has evaded classification, which is something that her recent drawings, with their spontaneous, painterly style somehow put across. Some of those drawings were made during the artist’s annual stays on the island of Kastellorizo, which is where her father was from. Vigorous yet calming, vulnerable but strong, the drawings capture an artist’s restless spirit. Lynda Benglis, at the Kappatos gallery (6 Aghias Eirinis Street, tel 210.321.7931) through February 28.