Lynda Benglis is a mistress of materials. Famed for her poured latex and lead works, the Louisiana-born artist has consistently innovated with mediums, using beeswax, cellophane, chicken wire, bronze, ceramic, sparkles, and gold leaf, to name but a few. In her hands, matter surprises—what is hard appears malleable, what is delicate can seem tough. Benglis has spent the past 60 years expanding and blurring conventional definitions of painting and sculpture and challenging stereotypically gendered approaches to materials and forms. Her current exhibition (on view through April 29, 2023) is no exception.
What look like giant ovoid gummy candies seem to hover on the walls in fruity Day-Glo pink, green, and yellow polyurethane. Contrasting with their sensory lightness, looping bronze floor sculptures exude a carefree fluidity despite their weightiness. These bronze forms—three highly polished, one painted black—hark back to Benglis’s smaller “sparkle knot” works from the early 1970s, made of cotton bunting wrapped around wire armatures and colorfully decorated with glitter.
Benglis has titled some recent works to suggest female empowerment, including the twisty black floor sculpture Black Widow (2021) and the smaller gold-colored B-Witched (2022), both in Everdur bronze. Peitho and Thetis (both 2017), two egg-jelly wall pieces, bear the names of Greek goddesses. Hot Lips (2020), a small, flaming pink polyurethane work, and Figure I (2009), a knobbly black bronze form that arches out suggestively from the wall, can be seen as reinforcing this idea. Power Tower (2019), the show’s centerpiece in white tombasil bronze, consists of silvery, slippery, interlocking cavities. Widows, witches, and goddesses; orifices, caves, and curves. These sensual works assert the female confidence of their maker, who back in 1974 took out an ad in Artforum in which she posed nude with a double dildo in an effort to draw attention to male domination of the art world.
Beyond the straightforward binaries of masculine and feminine though, there is something Cyborgian, in a Donna Haraway sort of fashion, about Benglis’s tentacle-like mirrored floor sculptures, which one can imagine having been spawned from the severing of some monstrous creature, their puckered ends curling upward like truncated limbs. These forms look squashy and organic rather than brittle and unyielding, a consequence of the fact that they began life in clay and were then cast in ceramic and digitally enlarged and cast in bronze. Benglis calls the original ceramic series “Elephant Necklaces,” and these works indeed have a heftiness reminiscent of the pachyderm, which is acknowledged in Elephant: First Foot Forward (2018), a smaller sister of Power Tower and also made of white tombasil bronze. These flowing floor sculptures seem to shape-shift as one walks around them, like knots tightening or unraveling. The pigmented polyurethane sculptures on the wall also have a sci-fi element about them, seeming to emanate an inner glow. Their wormlike tangles of translucent textures evoke brains, perhaps hooked up to some kind of charger.
Such impressions may have been far from Benglis’s intention, yet they arguably connect to her ideas about an “exchange of energy.” In the press release, she is quoted as saying that, when looking at the work, “we experience something in our bodies that is proprioceptic…we experience it in our whole body—you feel what you see and you are ‘charged.’” Proprioception is defined as a spatial and sensory awareness of the body. Did I feel energetically charged by the presence of the works? I’m not sure, but there is certainly a visual exchange occurring between viewer and works, and between the works themselves. As one moves around the room, contorted reflections of visitors and of the other works animate the gleaming surfaces of the floor sculptures.
With its intriguing variety of forms and textures (ribbed, pock-marked, and smooth), this beguiling show is a testament to Benglis’s ongoing, audacious experimentation. Counterbalanced by the floaty wall works, her large-scale bronze sculptures take on the bravado of the traditionally “masculine,” subverting it through inventive hybridity. Benglis combines properties usually in opposition—frills and jaggedness, mass and etherealness, wholeness and holey-ness—in ways that feel fresh and liberating.