Barbara Benish

Huntington Beach Art Center

Huntington Beach, CA

Set amidst sand dunes imported into the gallery space from the beach nearby, Barbara Benish’s site-specific work, Sandcasfles, reflects the artist’s childhood memories of life near the sea. The California born, Prague-based aftist s installation addresses postmodern issues, while eschewing the strident or didactic overtones that often accompany such inquiries. Teasingly winsome and gentle at first encounter, it is nonetheless tenacious, only slowly revealing its secrets.

A video serves as a backdrop to an array of abstract flower sculptures strewn as it were on the beaches of life. Benish explores the cycles of life, the relationship of nature to culture, and issues of female identity, drawing on memories of children’s sand drawings, Andy Warhol’s flower paintings, and ancient Paleolithic “Venus” figures. The installation presented two distinct types of abstracted floral forms, one solid and massive, and the other airy and linear. Together these two groups explore the interrelationships of substance to space and of suggested mass to contour and silhouette.

Barbara Benish, Sandcastles, 1999. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Two views of installation.

The massive concrete flowers, varying in shape, size, and color, personify on one level the stages of life. Those cast in gray-white and set reclining in the sand evoked great sadness, suggesting loss and even death. By contrast, a small and perky, yellow concrete flower seemed to skip with the glee and energy of a young toddler. A larger and more robust yellow flower, sagging heavily on two petal feet and sporting a bouquet of dried flowers at its center, connoted by comparison female maturity. Blossoming with a fullness endemic to women’s bodies during the procreative years, this sculpture presented motifs that reappear in the linear, wrought iron flower orbs.

These immensely round and surprisingly airy forms combine allusions to pregnancy with metaphors of nature and culture, evoking the sun and earth, as well as fruits and even beach balls. Each iron armature presents a visible face that underscores the theme of fecundity. ln one work, dried thistle flowers form a blanket surface that is brittle and rigid to the touch, while another orb face presents egg shells set into white plaster brimming with allusions to fertility and time.

Correlations between these works and an earlier series of wire sculptures, the Venus Series (1996), are striking. The older works, which explicitly referred to prehistoric female fertility figures, are extended here in a more assimilated and integrated manner. Similarly, the new wire orbs also refocus ideas that were
nascent in works Benish showed in the 1993 local exhibition “Obiects: Sixteen L.A. Sculptors.” ln retrospect, her dramatic and immense drooping tiger-lily form, constructed of green cloth and suspended from the rafters of the Pasadena Armory Center for the Arts, appears as a prelude to the current work. Hiding its glorious face of bejeweled ochre pistils within mammoth fabric folds that draped to within inches of the floor, that work conveys the artist’s labored evolution to address issues of female sexuality in her work. Now inverting that earlier flower form to profile its blossoming face, the new works are both a leap forward in the artist’s articulation of identity themes and refreshing images that feel intuited, vibrant, and even childlike.

Barbara Benish, Sandcastles, 1999. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Two views of installation.

While not eschewing industrial fabrication, these works nonetheless do not affirm industrial processes in the didactic manner of the Minimalists. Traces of the human hand and of gesture occur along edges and on surfaces, underscoring the handmade fabrication of the object. At the same time, these works explore mass media culture, flirting with populist obsessions with popular culture idioms. They may reflect the tenor of Prague’s post-Communist social preoccupations, but they also carry distinctively Californian innuendoes, specifically in their adaptation of Disney-like animation translated into the concrete flower forms. Further, in adapting and reusing the hot colors of Warhols flower paintings, Benish’s works articulate the power of mass media to code and promote cultural optimism, both by coloring personal memories and by impacting contemporary populist attitudes in post-Communist Prague. ln choosing such a simple and basic motif as a marker of complex social ideas, Benish’s works carry the subtle sophistication of European aesthetics generally, while embracing American artistic fixation with populist,
mass-media culture. Combining these influences with an ease that belies years of artistic experimentation,
Benish makes the sculptural process look simple in a manner accessible only to the accomplished.

-Collette Chattopadhyay