LOS ANGELES — For Lynda Benglis’ first West Coast solo exhibition since 2011, Blum & Poe has brought together a selection of the artist’s recent work, ranging from glazed ceramics to large-scale aluminum sculptures to chicken-wire installations.
Benglis began working in 1960s New York, at a time when Minimalist artists were experimenting with form. Unimpressed by the new trends in art, she sought to merge content and form, becoming a pioneer of post-Minimalism, and creating work that pushed the boundaries of her materials to their outer edge. Her greatest formal accomplishment was to initiate a new painting practice: rather than use a canvas and a paintbrush, she poured paint directly onto the floor, treating the ground as a surface onto which the painting could grow into an infinite sculptural formation, flowing across the space as it hardened into an object. While not necessarily bound to paint as her material of choice, she always carried the painting process into her work, resulting in a visual representation of material in action.
Benglis was among the first American abstract artists to insert humor into her work, opting for the playful nature of undulating forms rather than the rigid framing favored by Jackson Pollock, for instance; her works make the entire surrounding space dynamic, rather than just the picture plane. As one of the first women to challenge the formal approaches to art credited mainly to men, Benglis’ paint pours contributed to developing our definitions of painting; her painting eschewed traditional tools (i.e., canvas, paint brushes, or a palette) and verticality. In 1974, Benglis gained notoriety by placing an ad in Artforum, to accompany an article about her work, in which she posed nude, holding an oversized dildo between her legs. (Artforum editors at the time refused to run the image as part of the article.) With this gesture, Benglis challenged a cultural system that veiled and sanitized the female body.
Her irreverent manifestation of gender contributed to a long-standing discourse in art about the representation of male and female bodies. In her sculptural work, Benglis considers varying gender-based representations of power, rendering feminine traditionally masculine forms, and vice versa. It is unsurprising, then, that the majority of her work treats the body as a touchstone to recontextualize or recast the politics of gender, identity, and sensuality within the gallery space.
In the 11-foot-tall sculpture “HILLS AND CLOUDS” (2014), cast polyurethane rises up off the ground, dripping down the sides of stainless steel support beams. Smaller works of the same nature surround the centerpiece, like satellites or clouds. Protruding from the wall, the smaller works are intrinsically linked in their shape to the physical gestures that created them. Almost spectrally, the artist’s body is omnipresent in the space surrounding the work, effectively activating the environment in which the works are exhibited — like an energy grid, its currents flowing and jumping from one satellite sculpture to the next, providing the centerpiece with the momentum to grow upwards.
Much like her paint pours, these works suggest bodies suspended in time, as they reflect the surrounding landscape. “HILLS AND CLOUDS” and similar works appear to be floating, challenging the gravitational pull of the polyurethane as well as the expectation that the ground is the artwork’s stabilizing center. In a 1974 Artforum article, critic Robert Pincus-Witten formulated a conceptual framework through which we could discuss and understand Benglis’ work. Her structures are like “frozen gestures,” infinitely linked to the shape and form they inhabit, while entirely amorphous and unspecific, not-yet-realized.
Other polyurethane sculptures “THETIS,” “CALYPSO,” and “ANTHEIA” (all 2017) — brain- or egg-like forms pigmented in green, golden yellow, and bright yellow — resemble cocoons preparing to erupt into the brightly hued chicken-wire sculptures on the walls of the next room. In the latter pieces, Benglis wrapped chicken wire in colored, hand-made paper to create frozen gestures, which, like her towering aluminum forms, also in the exhibition, hint at the body without every truly reaching their corporeal potential.
What makes these pieces particularly interesting is their visibility. Benglis has ensured that viewers can see the sculptures from all angles. They are fluid in space, one with the environment, and beckon interaction. The artwork does not stop where the sculpture ends. Rather, it extends through the gallery space and beyond; three cast bronze sculptures are lined up outside. The work confronts viewers with its bodily reality, making visible the process of its construction in every mound and smear, but still eliciting something ineffable. The works fire the imagination and, through the artist’s intricate use of negative and positive space, raise foundational questions about the gendered body in art.
Lynda Benglis continues at Blum & Poe (2727 S. La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles, California) through December 16.