The most striking first impression of Paul Benjamin’s new paintings is that they are uncompromisingly passionate in their use of colour and texture. Here is spontaneous, gestural paint, instinctively applied and working as the command of a particular language may be second nature to a linguist. The images within, are organic, plant-like threads and symbols, his language, which binds and suspends forms and shapes, often ghosted or trapped in oily shifting surfaces. The whole though, is very much about the spirit of growth from the earth, or indeed almost symbolic gardens, conjured up by the suggested, part patterned areas in many of the small intimate paintings.
The large paintings are much more complex in composition, having the appearance of ignoring standard forms and spaces and perspective or even two dimensions, but are more to do with a time frame with no physical boundaries. One is reminded of the Chinese tradition where the content and subject of a painting is about truth, uncompromised by skilful reality.
With the drawings, Benjamins concentrates on the development of his personal vocabulary, the words of his language, but they are also works in their own right, beautiful, soft and sumptuous. They are wash and brush sepias, ‘alla prima’, with seductive white spaces and are superbly essential, combining great sensitivity with absolute economy.
Paul Benjamins was born in London and from an early age enjoyed painting and drawings, but it was no until he was in his late teens that he took the notion of being a painter seriously. His mother, who was an amateur artist, encouraged him, though she was concerned that he was embarking on a difficult and often insecure career. Nevertheless, at the age of nineteen, he was accepted at Camberwell School of Art and went on to post graduate studies at the Royal College of art from 1973-1975. By the early 1980’s he was exhibiting regularly with Thumb Gallery, now Jill George Gallery, and by late 1980’s he has established a niche in Paris with Galerie Pascal Gabert.
The work from this period is much more narrative in content, packed detailed imagery in the foreground, contained by arched sweeps of colour above, implying rolling distant landscapes, with a subtle combination of white spaces to the sides and beyond. But in the paintings for the Paris exhibition in 1991, there was a radical change to a single base colour, covering the entire picture area, with the images on top. It was though the attitude of his vision had tilted from that of an elevation to a plan or rather a bird’s eye view. It is now , in these new paintings, that the two visions have fused, retaining the best of the experiences of both periods.These splendid paintings and drawings represent a true landmark in Paul Benjamins’ career. Steeped in the visual heritage of the Ecole de Paris, they take their place intellectually in the great North European Romantic Tradition.
When artists paint they enter into a relationship with the traditions of that practice and agree that the constituents of painting are colour, surface, line and the way the materials are applied. In painting, meaning is apprehended as much through these elements as through an image or motif. Painters know that at least some of these concerns must be dealt with in painting because if they are all abandonned, painting ceases to be painting. The same conditions apply to other art forms with strong traditions. A Flamenco guitarist when asked to define his art once said: “It is like a bird in a cage. The bird can fly anywhere within the cage but it must not escape or it is no longer Flamenco.” In the same way, painting retains links with its tradition through its essential constituents and these determine what paintings look like as well as signify what they can mean.
The way in which painting is written about and discussed is determined by language. It should perhaps come as no surprise then that a language dominated by scientific rationalism and technology should have difficulty describing the effects that the manipulation of paint can have on human emotions; and via those emotions, on human perception and thought. This goes some way to explaining why discussions about art often become discourses around concepts and contexts, in ways which presuppose that these came first and all else followed and obeyed; after all this is the order of language. But in fact painters often begin without a logical linguistic framework for their ideas, they begin with the material; paint. Many painters therefore, intend their work to be experienced and thought about and enjoyed for its sensuality and not to be read.
It may be argued that painting’s irradicable connection with its tradition and its reluctance to succumb to translation through language or photography without becoming something else, places it in the increasingly rare position of an irreducible object of desire. It is this position which enables artists to explore their intentions through practice and to justifiably find out what those intentions might be.
It is not surprising that against this background a good deal of speculation and uncertainty is present in most studios as painters pursue indefinable epistemologies of practice. Like alchemists they mix cocktails of oil, water and stone (which they seldom understand in scientific terms) and apply them to prepared surfaces sometimes to create known or desired effects, sometimes out of pure speculation. Occasionally, as in the case of Paul Benjamins, the act and methods of making the work so closely resemble its intentions that the paintings become signifiers of experiences, thoughts and desires. On a recent visit to his studio I asked Benjamins what kind responses he wanted people to have to his new work. His reply was characteristically open and unpretentious: “I want people to feel that they are experiencing places that they may have glimpsed in the corner of their eye (places) which are strangely familiar but unrecognisable or in a different state than the one they are used to (seeing). And to feel that they want to be transported through the painting.”
To acheive this Benjamins begins with a canvas or piece of paper on the floor. Pots containing gooey and runny liquids of intense colour are assembled in readiness at its edges. Decisions about the nature, colour and saturation of the ground have to be made, as well as when and how to begin the next move. Benjamins patrols the edges of the canvas viewing it from all sides and angles. The canvas becomes a territory where actions and thoughts tumble and freefall. Motifs appear and disappear sometimes melting into the paintings rich atmosphere. A flood of colour, a controlled drip or line cancels the last and establishes the next until the painting’s job is done. The result may bare the evidence of high activity or give opportunities for quiet contemplation.
In his statement Benjamins acknowledges that his work is shaped by the desire to establish a sense of place. But unlike other landscape painters, the place Benjamins aims to create is extraterritorial; where different rules apply. And where, by accepting his invitation into the work, we can celebrate where we already are or where we would like to be. Benjamins work reveals slippages between ornament and meaning; a motif in one painting causes a reflex recognition while the same motif in another confounds us by emphasising its painterly artifice. In his new work Benjamins offers his services generously as an ambassador of celebrations of new but familiar places.
Light Years. University of Brighton 1998.
Light years: connotations of difference and distance, immense ideas of space and time; an implication of (being at) ease … it’s the sort of expression, or image, which lends itself to a teasing variety of interpretation, especially where the work of a painter is concerned. Painters work with light – or rather, they engage in the endless challenge of turning the basic stuff of their activity (oils and acrylic, canvas and charcoal, glazes and so forth) into something that, through the orchestration of line and colour, space and form, somehow comes to speak of that ever-changing, ever-mysterious quality which always remains open to interpretation, whether in terms of a naturalistic or a symbolic view of the world. A successful work of art, we say, sheds a little light on life. But what is the source — or direction — of that light?
For many years now, Paul Benjamins has been a painter of light. A decade or so ago, his work might have drawn upon the stimulation afforded by travels through France, Italy, Greece, Morocco, Israel, America and Egypt. While any such direct references are now hard to locate in the work, Benjamins continues to reveal his love of an essentially Southern abundance of heat and light, expressed in washes of colour pure enough to moisten the tongue — and laced now and then with the sort of bitter-sweet, Northern nostalgia that can recall the German Hölderlin’s gratitude for those times when ‘nostrils nearly ache with the rising scent of lemon and oil from Provence.’
Today, despite the greater abstraction, the liberated plasticity of the work, Benjamins continues to offer juicy, organic paintings to delight the eye. Pleasurable, painterly paintings, these; spacious, spiritual paintings, light years from the angst-ridden heaviness or overly studied conceptualism of a good deal of art of the recent past. A refreshing variety of touch informs such fluid, shape-shifting worlds of freely disposed, yet scrupulously adjusted elements: close cousins of Kandinsky and Miró, Twomby and Francis, one might guess — but cousins who sing their own song, far from the pastiche and paraphrase of much Post-Modernism. Allusive and concrete, impacted and limpid, Benjamins’ paintings unite spontaneity and reflection in both the working and viewing process, rejuvenating the melodic/polyphonic play of colour field and gesture, texture and tone, figure and ground, earth and sky. We fill our lungs and fly. Over landscapes? Perhaps, but landscapes liberated from all traces of the literal, the prosaic.
For a body travelling at the speed of light, time ceases to exist. For a painter such-as Benjamins, immersed in the pure, demanding poetics of his art, sociologistic imperatives of history and theory (which determine so much art and art historical discourse today) surrender to space, energy and light. What was it that the Hindu sages said? ‘He who understands has wings.’ Here is a painter’s understanding of what it can mean to track the mystery of light years, to conjure the energy of immense, imaginal wings.
Londres-Paris. 28 Sept – 3 Oct 1991.
Dans l’atelier de Paul Benjamins, nous avons cherché des correspondances françaises à ce mot anglais (“musings”) qu’il avait choisi pour titrer son exposition à Paris, “Musings on the approach of a new age”. Titre qui faisait se rencontrer deux sortes d’inspiration, antinomiques, conflictuelles même et qui sont peut-être le nerf de son travail en ce moment: le goût pour l’allégresse, et le sens du drame.
L’allégresse – s’il faut séparer un thème de l’autre – il la dit avec a couleur. Jamais depuis dix ans, Benjamins n’a autant eu envie de jouer avec la couleur, de peindre avec la couleur.
Les années 80, il a tiré sa peinture de fonds blancs, pour dire que son choix du tout ou rien tenait à l’évocation, aux réminiscences, telles que la peinture pouvait les restituer, les lui donner à voir. Détails d’architectures appartenant à des civilisations passées et disparues, paysages méditerranéens, signes noirs griffés qui montraientl’indéchiffrable de la mémoire.
Les sujets – si c’en était, car ils étaient plutôt prétextes à trouver l’organisation picturale de temps et d’espaces sans liens objectifs – se détachaient du blanc de la toile ou du papier, comme ils peuvent se détacher du rêve ou de la surface de l’eau pour venir vers l’oeil.
Ses tableaux étaient des ponts, des arches, immatériels et sensibles, qui sur la rétine venaient poser des sensations de couleurs, de traits, de brossages estompés, de lavis, de coulures pour trouver chez le spectateur un acquiescement enfoui derrière son savoir, son histoire.
Il y avait quelque chose qui en appelait à la virginité. Pas seulement à cause de tout ce blanc présent, aveuglant même, mais parce que ce qui était dit, peint, cherchait sa source dans l’oeil du regardant, une source dans sa mémoire première, la mémoire délavée de tout ce qui se passe et se fait dans le présent.
Aujourd’hui, tout est renversé, Benjamins appelle un autre regard. Le movement ne se passe plus du tableau vers le spectateur, mais la vision cogne le tableau, le fond du tableau.
Comme si lui, le peintre, avait changé et demandait autre chose à sa peinture. Une confrontation. Une mise à plat, une dénomination première: nommer tous les combattants avant que la bataille s’engage, et tout mettre sur la toile de ce qu’elle peut dire, ce qu’elle ne sait pas dire aussi, puisqu’il n’y a pas d’autre moyen qu’elle et qu’il faut en passer par elle uniquement – quitte à en laisser des plumes, ou des pinceaux.
Du coup l’espace des tableaux a changé. Les choses se passent frontalement. Le regard cogne au tableau. Comme un combat de têtes. De plein front. Le tableau attrape le regard, le capte et le garde.
La couleur, l’alIégresse de la couleur, Benjamins s’en défiait comme de la seduction. Aujourd’hui il la prend, s’en sert, avec le goût du défi. Capter quelque chose de la peinture, quelque chose de plus vaste, de plus généreux, de plus difficile à cerner aussi, à maîtriser, en ne respectant peut-être qu’une loi – si elle en est une – L’ironie.
Entre le drame du monde tel qu’il est, de la terre à jamais ronde, de la noirceur des guerres dévastatrices et des passions destructives, il y a le goût sensible et presque sensuel pour tout ce qui peut s’exprimer et que dans ses tableaux il trace, d’une fleur, d’un cadre, d’un coeur, d’une arche, pour que s’affronte et se disperse ce qui peut être saisi et qui de toute façon s’enfuit aussi.
C’est un ordre organique que cherche Paul Benjamins. Quelque chose qui a à voir avec l’énergie, première, joyeuse, et le désespoir de la disparition où l’aléatoire le dispute à réphémère.
Et ce combat avec le temps, saisi, arraché, qui a lieu dans l’espace du tableau, est peut-être la rencontre ironique du monde tel qu’il est et de l’espoir d’un autre monde. Ce que Benjamins nomme “Musings on the approach of a new age”, et qu’il faudrait entendre comme “Méditations sans prétention sur un monde à venir”?