Benny Andrews

McIntosh Gallery

Benny Andrews’ recent work projects an extraordinarily humane vision. Andrews never loses sight of his subjects’ hardships. In the group of works from the “Southland” series, 1988, his characters are noble but not artificially so. Thanksgiving resembles Grant Wood’s American Gothic, 1930, but the farm couple are shown in full view and standing next to a pair of mules. In this and many other works, the mule is Andrews’ symbol of rural life, and the parallel between animal and human captures both the realism of Andrews’ idea of life in the rural South and a nostalgia for his Southern roots.

Several of the recent paintings and collages depict game players (always male) around a pool table, a card game, or a checkerboard. The characters are leaning on their cues or sitting on upturned boxes watching the progress of the game. They pose with a studied nonchalance, waiting their turn at a contest that plainly has concrete meaning for them. Andrews’ drawings, complete in themselves but also studies for his series, display an elegantly jumpy line. The figures in the drawings are more individuated, and their voices are almost audible as they speak to one another across the pool table or address the viewer directly. Their pool cues are only momentarily suspended, a stroke plainly imminent. By contrast, the figures in the paintings seem to be studying a shot rather than on the point of making one.

This cast of characters is not without its negative side. One figure in particular, a poker player in Portrait of Death, is a well-dressed horror, with a jutting collaged nose and a subtly primitive expression suggesting not so much death as the return of the repressed. This player casts all the others into perspective, demonstrating the reality that rule-bound games ignore. There is an undertow of absence to the whole series, both in the vacuous leisure of the rural men spending their days in the pool hall, and in the rare appearance of women. When Andrews does portray women, it is either individually or in a domestic scene; they always appear alienated. The background of the game paintings is often peculiarly empty—a white wall or a piece of unbleached canvas—giving the works a Hopperesque quality that, in spite of the articulation of the characters, emphasizes the oppressiveness of life beyond the game.

Glenn Harper