Tony Benn


When abstract painters pioneered the color field as a final solution to the problem of what Clement Greenberg once called “homeless representation”—the intrusive traces of mundane and redundant images left over from a world of signs irredeemably banalized by business and publicity—they could not have foreseen how, precisely because mass-mediation is itself an idealizing and abstracting process, its products—tele-icons, trademarks, and simulacra of all kinds—would prove so compatible with the sublime voids and yonders of the painted field. The montaging of the Minolta mark, or George Bush’s pseudopapal hands into an abyss of blue or crimson proves surprisingly feasible: the expected irony does not disrupt the transcendent “aura” that is the color field’s special province. On the contrary, the casting of such homeless and empty signs into a sublime chasm releases from them an uncanny power, as of a numen, or cryptic gesture.

Such is part of Tony Benn’s project. He took it up in the company of the Simulacra group of British artists, notably John Stezaker, who has pursued the investiture of fascination and myth in mass images in an exclusive commitment to photomontage. But Benn transferred his practice to painting, and thereby transformed the terms of this investiture. If we say that Benn is a painter, we don’t mean simply that, like David Salle, he uses painting to quote and pastiche a plurality of images. On the contrary, Benn maintains conviction in the intrinsic truth value of the painted mark. This is evident in the rich color and surface texture of the new works. Moreover, to this faith in the trace of the maker’s touch, he brings an iconography of palm lines and bodily imprints whose code lies midway between the indexical “authenticity” of color and brushstroke and the absolutely drained imprimatur that is inserted like a sponsor’s reminder between the painter’s field of action and the viewer’s field of vision. The works thus construct a standoff between identities that are felt, on the one hand, to be incompatible, yet, on the other, shown to be quite capable of not only sharing the same space but of an occult exchange of meaning and power. Yet because the status of one of the terms here—the painting qua painting—is registered as autonomous and real in itself, the status of the coded images is brought to a point beyond “mere irony” and verges on the condition of a symbol. This is a very fine line that Benn is treading, for it rests on the variable realities of the materials of his art. If he paints Bush’s hands, for instance, how finely should he paint them as compared to the fineness of the color field and the palm lines or other elements in the work? At present, a criticism that might be made is that his concern with strategems of the image imbues the painting with a hesitancy that thwarts their fulfillment. Benn could develop in a number of different ways. He could further invest the density and power of his painting in and of itself, but he is too alert to the milieu in which he practices not to go on exploring the poetics of stereotypical signs as they fall out of their allotted spaces and prey on the reimaginative reverie of the abstract color field, or as John Ashbery called it, “that deep gulf of recreation, the painter’s canvas.”

Brian Hatton