New York

Ben Schonzeit

Ben Schonzeit’s paintings are more closely allied to the potentialities of photography than is the work of almost any other photo-Realist painter. No matter what his subject matter, his overriding concern is with the artistry of the color photograph. A common reaction to his air-brush paintings is the viewer’s questioning of whether they are indeed paintings. This ambiguity is enhanced by Schonzeit’s method of image construction. He projects a slide of a photograph on the canvas and copies it exactly, generating a machinelike paint surface which is identical at ten feet or two inches.

Realism may be an excuse for abstraction, as is the case with Janet Fish’s paintings of glassware. Schonzeit thinks of his close-ups of vegetables as color fields and has said of his painting of cauliflower heads, “I spent a year looking for a cream and indigo subject.” But the paintings are more about a type of abstraction implicit in photography. All the imperfections and technical dodges of photography—fuzziness from a shallow depth of field, extreme attention to detail, etc., are rendered as an excessive beauty. The increased scale makes the impact undeniable. In a burst of Romanticism one feels the patent leather purpleness of eggplants; the way rhubarb imprisons sunlight; and how cellophane wrapping destroys cauliflowers’ normal matte finish and turns them into a dessert-like confection.

The oversize harsh portrait is a hallmark of photo-Realism. Artists such as Chuck Close seeking to emulate Gulliver’s experiences in Brobdingnagia, the land of giants, become geographers of pores and blemishes. Although it shares with Close’s work scale and attention to skin detail, Schonzeit’s portrait of Marcia is preoccupied with the way a certain type of artificial lighting, best captured in a photograph, can render a head as a color abstraction. He backlights the woman’s head, and the hair and its attendant shimmer become a series of auras or halos. There is an almost gaudy contrast between the predominantly red tones of the face, the prismatic green, yellow, blue stripes of light reflections on the glasses and the acid green shirt.

Both in subject and composition, House, painted in the colors of a black and white photograph, is Schonzeit’s most atypical work. It abandons the frontal close-up for a collaged composition with political overtones. A film clip of three frames of a movie recording the destruction of a dummy two-story house by an atomic test is placed diagonally across the canvas. Suggesting the passage of time, it is edged with numbers in and out of focus and a section of a watch face. In its preoccupation with documentary images and its concern with destruction, there is a suggestion of Warhol’s black and white serigraphs of car crashes and electric chairs, pictures known to most artists working today.

––Ann-Sargent Wooster