Organic Gesture and Flashy Flutterings
THE Art Now column spotlights art that is so new it has not yet been labeled. The art of Lynda Benglis is not new. She has been a respected, high-visibility New York artist for nearly three decades; her public works of sculpture dot sites across the United States, her work is in the permanent collections of major US and European museums, and last year she was the subject of a major career retrospective. Benglis's art is not too new for labels; it is showcased here because it has consistently defied labels. Benglis hit the art scene in the late '60s when women artists, especially sculptors, wanted to bring back to art references to nature and natural processes. These artists wanted to reinvest art with the emotion and poetry deemed "superfluous" by the male-dominated art movement called Minimalism that held art in an icy thrall during the late '60s and early '70s. Minimalism spawned such works as those large metal squares we've all seen propped on gallery floors; it was an aesthetic movement that took the s aying "less is more" to heart. Benglis and other women (and a few men) artists led the quiet revolt against the spartan geometry of Minimalism. With irreverent defiance, Benglis began making sculptures out of things like free-form sandstone globs or random shapes made from liquefied wax or latex spilled and left to harden. Her sculpted torsos encrusted with glitter rank among the first so-called feminist art works. But Benglis's aims were broader than gender. These self-consciously tacky and wacky techniques had the serious intention of reintroducing into contemporary art the elements of spontaneity, decoration, and gesture which have comprised the language of art since its inception. In 1980, Benglis piled all these artistic goals into her signature style: the now unmistakable Benglis "knots." Benglis makes wall-hung fluttering knots of pleated metal that resemble little gold, silver, or bronze label pins, but are actually often six feet in length. Benglis begins by bending, coiling, pleating, and knotting wire infrastructures of stainless steel. She then plates the wire with painstaking layers of nickel, zinc, copper, or chrome - a process that one could liken to gold leafing on a thicker scale. The finished wall-hung pieces are glittering, sensual sculptures that are suspended on walls and seem to "flutter" across five-foot spans of gallery space like birds at wing. Benglis's belief that art is about rich, organic gesture has remained a theme over the last decade of knots. We can see this interest in these drapery-like convolutions caught in metallic freeze frames which often suggest strange life forms or the processes of nature that are eruptive and generative. When the knots first appeared there were those that would fault them for being too seductively beautiful. At the beginning, Benglis insisted on overstating their sheer grace and beauty because these were the very things that had been under attack in the '60s and '70s. Art has long since reappropriated gesture, texture, sensuality, and spontaneity into its now pluralistic vocabulary of acceptable content, so Benglis has modulated the works' focus accordingly. Recent works are made from multihued layers of metal, giving sculptures a less flashy finish, producing darker, more intricate surfaces and nuances of light and shade that give works a much more interesting interpretation. Benglis's sense of humor and multireferential wit come through in pieces like "Blitzen Benz," a crinkled up precious-looking mass of metal named after another precious mass of metal that travels our highways. Other works, with their pinches, pulls, and asymmetrical winged corrugations, look like armored prehistoric birds or some futuristic ornament/icon we'd expect to see as a prop in the next "Road Warrior" movie. These sorts of composite allusions that are simultaneously elegant and kitsch are just what give the work its special force. As a final twist to this intelligent art, Benglis makes sure we realize that her position is ultimately equivocal; we sense in the work that she both reveres and ridicules the flashy, decorative tradition that - like it or not - is at art's very core.