Ben L. Culwell

Ben L. Culwell is a Texas artist who last exhibited in the 1946 “Fourteen Americans” show at the Museum of Modern Art. This recent exhibition here in his home state, entitled “Adrenalin Hour,” consisted of a group of 45 small drawings that Culwell made in the South Pacific during World War II when he was a sailor and that have been happily recovered from oblivion. Culwell’s work was all but forgotten after he pursued a business career when no gallery picked him up—most likely because his work was an adventurous, unclassifiable hybrid: loosely Abstract Expressionist but also firmly imagistic and figural, with all the hallucinatory vigor that comes from the successful fusion of the abstract and descriptive.

These mixed-media drawings are, as Walter Hopps has written in his catalogue essay, “poetic diaristic inscriptions... made under the extremities of human endurance during the war in the Pacific,” and “among our most powerful images of the horror of modern war.” They may be ranked with Otto Dix’s World War I images, particularly his trench-life prints, which were also based on firsthand experience.

What is most attractive about Culwell’s images is their rare ability to fuse the abstract and realistic to extraordinary emotional effect. They articulate the outer world and inner world simultaneously as both converge on chaos. Under the pressure of uncontrollable events, Culwell gives voice to the uncontrollable emotions spawned by them, integrating the two in singular, dynamic images. Some, such as Men Fighting and Stars in the Solomon, October 1942, 1942/44, are stunningly automatist. Many images have an art brut feeling, especially the works that depict death, such as Death by Burning and Dying by Drowning, both 1942–44. These are brilliantly insane, showing an unusual ability to regress to primal process methods while still maintaining a connection with consciously perceived reality. In one, Concussioned Time Fragment——Size of While You Don’t Know at All, also 1942–44, observed detail and expressionistic energy fuse with a seamless-ness that makes more bearable the great empathy demanded of it. Such works cut a trail through unknown parts of the unconscious with a sense of conscious direction and certainty.

As Culwell suggests with Personal Lifescape in Guadalcanal Campaign, Fall of 1942, 1942–44, these are psyche-scapes of life lived at its most intense level under the perpetual threat of death. In works depicting sailors on shore leave in explicit sexual scenes with the bar whores they visit, and in other works where the psychosexual tension is implicit between the sailors themselves—who are apparently naked in several battle scenes—he shows this intensity at its most life-hungry. However, it is when Culwell’s lifescapes deal with death that they achieve their greatest complexity, both in artistic and emotional terms. Although his images seem unbalanced, they are in fact precariously balanced between the biophiliac and the necrophiliac, tipped finally and brilliantly toward an affirmation of life.