Dumb Material and Animate Belief: Sadie Benning Plays (with) God

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Occasionally, a show hits the sweet spot so squarely, that critical faculties seem to evaporate on the tip of one’s tongue. In the case of Sadie Benning’s Green God – one exhibition split between Callicoon, in the lower east side, and Mary Boone’s Upper East Side location – this sweet spot is redolent of marzipan. Like the sugary Catholic confection, the show is made of flat colors and crafted surfaces that stir actuality and imposture. They form a strange menagerie, in which amorphous classification is a uniting principle.

The exhibition’s character is childish naiveté, finely tuned. You won’t find a more hackneyed artistic posture than this. Fortunately, you also won’t find an exhibition that thrums this vibrantly, through the suffocating forces of cliché and taboo. It’s as if a Waldorf classroom had been tasked with producing overgrown jigsaw puzzles, with eyes crossed between Hieronymous Bosch and Jim Henson. Wood has been cut to amorphous shape, layered reverentially with color, and recombined into mystical scenes populated by amoebic humanoids, free of sexual or racial markers. A conspicuous absence of shadow bolsters the likeness of this myth world, with a puerile garden, before the fall.

Benning, in her own genesis tale, appears in the early nineties as a nineteen year-old art star and queer icon. The early videos began as a way to see images “that affirmed my reality.” Pithy statements like this appear often in her interviews, and have the economy of a scalpel. They establish a backdrop to the confessional gusts that are her videos and drawings, charged with ethical and personal consequence.

Long before moving into the recent abstract paintings, Benning ranged outside of the crucial subject of queerness. While Me and Rubyfruit (1990) offers a jostling reflection of nascent love, A Place Called Lovely (1991) is a montage essay, registering so many degrees of violence, from harassment to murder. Both chop between scenic shots and myopic captures of the body, and are irritated by vicissitudes of music and static. The works are like photocopied zines, transmuted into video. They give cutting texture to manifold intimacies.

Allusions to Christendom have been woven into Green God at a measured cadence, calling up memories of this earlier work. In Crucifixion (2015), a rudimentary female silhouette appears in deep cobalt against blood red. She is an icon, possessive of such graphic punch that the image of a crucifixion arrives at a delay. Shortly, the transgressive gesture of putting a woman on the cross comes into focus. In turn, this realization opens a recollective portal which most of us would rather keep closed – to witch-burnings and stonings, punishments for the crime of being a woman. Benning layers narrative clues and imminent effect, forming lightning-fast transitions between dumb visual information and conflicted memories. In Faces (2015), praying hands etched in glass hang knick-knackishly over a crowd of alabaster heads. Nearby there is a photo of a priest, walking away. The image triggers flashbacks of the institutional self-amputations that impelled Benning’s early work, while the glass hands tether these echoes to a world more palpable.

In videos like Living Inside (1989), which was shot in Benning’s bedroom, a secret world appeared, hidden in the body of capitalist patriarchy, like an organ of its repressed capacity for love. Green God hypertrophies this necessary measure into a cartoon god complex. Actually, it goes one step further, positioning Benning as a god-maker.

Sadie Benning, "Living Inside," 1989. Courtesy the MoMA.

Sadie Benning, “Living Inside,” 1989. Courtesy the MoMA.

The hubris of this ambition might give us hives if the show’s cartoon language weren’t so preternaturally self-deprecating. In addition to Green God, Benning gives us Worm God and Turquoise God (both 2015). In the latter, a clunky figure leers through a black ziggurat, emanating a red aura. A striped straw drifts across its belly, just below a cyclopean eye, which looks like margarine. The effect is less “I can’t believe its not butter” than “I can’t believe it’s not painting.” As cleverness gives way to deeper meaning: “I can’t believe Sadie Benning’s show of asexual cartoon creatures seems more sane the one I’m living in.”

It can be difficult to reconcile the uncanny, terse sensitivity of Benning’s videos, with the more digestible jouissance of these paintings. Of the early work, Benning has said that I’ve “never had any problems with hostility toward the content, only toward the medium I use.” But here, even when chunky blood oozes mutely from the title character’s belly, surface charm is literally surface charm. These uncanny objects in Green God have been assembled so lovingly, and their flat colors matched and applied so tenderly that they coax the retina like a mosquito to blue light. The expectation that artworks should contain some measure of unpleasant grit is moral in origin, predicated on a belief that art must resist hypnotic effect. These paintings, on the other hand, perform a resistance by way of hypnosis. Transfixing, they search imagination for a place where perennially multiplying difference is exalted. This is a political gambit, in the truest sense.

When the paintings excrete a stench, they do so reservedly. It’s common knowledge that with Catholicism possessing a rap sheet of biblical proportion, no one needs an exorcism more than the exorcists. So when Benning has a priest in her hands – as in Priest (2016) – she attenuates this salacious topic by couching it in a montage dreamscape, throwing back to Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In a seafoam-green photo, the father’s receding back is embedded in a surface recalling Mediterranean plaster, along with a small totem sculpture and another photo of a road-tripping car. The pleasure of hop-scotching through imaginative spaces is esteemed, here, as a governing ethic – a kind of aesthetic equivalent to intesectionality.

In those early videos, faces glowing out of darkened bedrooms were broken into patches of shadow and light, by the camera’s inadequate lens. In Green God, the faces of strange creatures are likewise myopic and blocked out like living coloring books. Observing this resonance, the visages in these early works appear as DIY saints and angels – made not in man’s image, but in Benning’s, and those of friends and lovers, in service of a more human need.

Essays and interviews produce a memory of a teenage Benning working feverishly behind a closed bedroom door, innocent of high culture’s aesthetic corruptions. The camera that produced these works was a gift from dad, the respected filmmaker James Benning – a detail that makes her biography a convolution of naiveté and latent knowledge. These paintings continue to indicate an outsider working in this crackling junction.

Coin (2015), for example, is eerily estranged from the medium of painting, while also disclosing the maker’s absorption of art history. We see a pilgrim couple, bonneted and musket-bearing, gazing obliquely out of a digitally-reproduced etching. The print has been cut to resemble a silhouetted embedded in a graphic motif reminiscent of Carmen Herrera, or Ellsworth Kelly – a yellow circle and zigzag stripe, against matte black. Umbilical cords and lightning bolts come to mind, holding equal importance to the pilgrims, and the colonial maelstrom they represent. All are interlopers in the colicky guts of collective memory.

Like all successful art, Benning’s is subject to contradiction. A gritty aura emanates from her work with Riot Grrrl punk bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. But if a poor person ever made it through the doors of Mary Boone’s Upper East Side gallery, they’d probably feel much as Benning did, encountering capitalist culture as a young queer person – useless, or worse, a blight. In the early nineties, Benning would arrive at screenings with tapes in hand, and linger afterwards to speak with audiences. An ethos of collectively leaks into these discreet sculpture paintings, undercover. Their color comes from Casein, a paint that offers flat, uniform coverage, making it a favorite of muralists. The works offer a nod towards the hopeful pop of community murals, even as that wider engagement, which could fairly be called a necessity of any self-respecting theology, remains an adumbration.

The most cogent social world in this show unfolds between the paintings themselves. In Green God, a grey face gapes obtusely with green pie-plate eyes and a tiny lolling tongue. Slivers of red dart between figure and ground, rhyming with the brilliant red sun in Sunset (2011). That sun drops in from the rectangle’s upper edge, over a baby-blue sky and a lumpy ocean dazzled with light reflections, in red and yellow. Elsewhere, in Nature (2015), shards and splatters in black, grey and red appear on white. There’s been a death in this family. Of whom or what, we can’t be sure.

The scene isn’t scary, so much as smirking. It catches us pondering the logic of difference that allows separations between animal and human, synthetic and natural, painting and not painting, dumb material and animate belief. All are conundrums that, in addition to being warmly perplexing, contribute to a slow burning liberation, in the ethos of Fred Moten’s insight that the normative doesn’t enjoy preternatural superiority, but is “an after effect … a response to the irregular.” Green God’s baseline is familiarity, coyly turning away. Irresolutions bubble out of it, as through a strange, delicious tonic. Thank god someone is producing it: green, purple, pink, whichever.

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