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Nina Simone’s 1959 performance of “Black is the Color (of My True Love’s Hair)” took a popular folk song and resuscitated it in the mainstream, deploying it for Simone’s own repertoire and obscuring the meaning of “black” to be more ambiguous than pure color. The song’s history spanned Appalachia and Scotland, but Simone’s haunting version reappropriated its lyrics and expanded its possible connotations of pro-Blackness and Black affirmation, particularly when considered in the context of other Simone covers like “Strange Fruit.”
In Paul Stephen Benjamin’s Pure, Very, New at Marianne Boesky Gallery, from a pile of over 30 vintage televisions, resonated a low light and swirling, repetitive sound. This fragmentation of sound, moving image, and light further remixes Simone’s cover of a popular song that had little to do with race prior to her adaptation of the tune. Benjamin’s use of Simone’s performance in his work (also titled “Black Is the Color”) is apt, considering Benjamin’s own use of pop culture iconography and his conceptual reconfigurations of them using the color black.
Our associations with color run deep and hold cultural weight. What is white and light is pure, and what is black and dark is tainted. These assumptions are imbued in our language and cultural behaviors, and deeply embedded over centuries and across cultures.
Pertaining to the “red, white, and blue” of the American flag and the iconographic White House, coloration seems indivisible from cultural relevance and recognizability. But Benjamin proves otherwise. He takes the American flag and the White House, drowning them in a swathe of consuming black, simultaneously consuming their cultural meanings. Along one wall are photographs of Black men fading into a black background, drawing a dark relation to the implications of brightly-colored nationalism and who it serves to make invisible.
Pure, Very, New takes to task the identification of black as a color beyond expectation. In Benjamin’s work, black is a beautiful, encompassing, and diverse color. He layers different black paints, fabrics, and pigments to make his images and craft his sculptures, which requires an up-close-and-personal experience of the work — closer than feels comfortable in the often-stifling white cube of a typical Chelsea gallery.
In this particular room of the gallery, the high ceiling, bright lights, and white walls are a disappointing contrast to the warm, disorienting low light seen in the other exhibition rooms. It almost undoes the experience curated throughout the rest of the show to transport patrons outside of the expected notions of art viewership, turning black into a sensory experience through sound and light.
However, moving past this room, you enter a hallway washed by the creeping fluorescent lighting of two sculptural works. Here, Benjamin makes blue a warm, inviting color. It lulls you into a dreamy, pleasant stupor as your eyes adjust to the light. The emission of light on these disorienting structures is so low, it’s almost as if Benjamin invented a never-before-experienced shade of indigo.
Curator Lisa Freiman transports you outside of the white cube. In both of the entrances/exits of the gallery, as well as this hallway, the lights are dimly lit and darkly colored with atmospheric blue lights.
On the other side of this passage, you enter a gallery space softly lit with indigo lights. Here, all the paintings once again appear like black canvases from a distance. In this room, some of them are, but painted just-barely-noticeably different shades of black — it takes a good deal of convincing myself that there is no hidden image within them. Benjamin and Freiman have created optical disillusions — from the fluorescent lights to the swirling sound of Nina Simone, they have managed to affect my senses.
On one wall are seemingly solid black canvases that read “PURE,” “VERY,” “NEW” — painted in Behr “Pure Black” latex paint; Valspar “Very Black” latex paint; and Valspar “New Black” latex paint — in the faintest-possible, enormous block lettering. The distinctions between blacks are almost entirely invisible in these works. Benjamin is pushing the limits of monochrome — how close can the colors be before they disappear into one another? The work recalls the white-on-white paintings of Robert Ryman and Kazemir Malevich, who also layered barely distinguishable versions of the same color, one on top of the other.
While I found these canvases underwhelming compared to the rest of the work, I was captivated by the glimmering, neatly-packed sea of broken crystals in the room’s center. They are reflecting all the light in the room that the black canvases absorb. With the color black, Benjamin forges destruction and consumption of identity in the ambiguity of void. Rather than appearing cavernous, his black canvases are encompassing and curious, exploring the possibilities of what black can carry within itself and create with itself.
Paul Stephen Benjamin’s Pure, Very, New, curated by Lisa Freiman, is on view at Marianne Boesky Gallery through February 16, 2019.