New York

Lynda Benglis

Gray | New York

This very surprising exhibition marked a decisive change in the tactics and esthetics of Lynda Benglis—presenting what at first seemed to be an artistic about-face. Gone were the opulent and lush wallbound sculptures that have marked her work since the mid ’70s, those metallic rivulets and excrescences that progressively erupted from museum and gallery walls with incredible tactile boldness and irrepressible high spirits. In their place was something much leaner, a sequence of sculptures that reflect a pared-down and desiccating vision, seemingly the residue of the artist’s determination to probe and experiment.

Take, for example, Snakemare 1, 1991. A table-top sculpture with bronze attached to a stone base—a display system and combination of elements Benglis has never used before—it takes the form of a sinuous flow of whitened bronze, upheld at points by whitened bronze pieces that resemble chunks of metal. It rests on its little plinth like the bones of some fossilized creature, some vertebrate remnant, bent and twisted into a tortuous chain. Unsensuous, unlovely, and gnawed right down to the bone, this piece exudes a sense of willful inquiry, of a recombination of elements toward something with no patience for esthetic beauty. The snake motif becomes even more bizarre in Mea Culpa, 1992–93, which depicts a rough-hewn and clumsy three-headed serpentine hydra, one of its heads distended to devour an egg. The clay Benglis uses to make the molds for these bronzes is everywhere evident: one senses her fingers restlessly kneading these things into being. This spirit of investigation, this determined willingness to overturn the norm, led Benglis to include the first fully figural piece of her career, Man/Head Landscape, 1992. This is a remarkable piece, managing to appear both incredibly stupid and oddly comforting. It most resembles a kachina doll, a very simplified block figure—Benglis describes its eyes, ears, and mouth by no more than sticking her fingers an inch or two straight into the clay. The figure stands like a sentinel at one end of its stone base, and like a kachina doll, it seems to look backward to some symbolic source, to touch some deeply felt truth.

This very striking change in Benglis’ art can be seen less as a repudiation of what preceded it in her career than as a representation of the beginnings of a new agenda. Benglis’ recent work may have been inspired by her trips to India and her periods of working in the Southwest. In a manner that recalls the experiences of Georgia O’Keefe, the incredible drama of nature, and the stark and isolated experience of existence in the desert seems to have touched some chord in Benglis. For now, though, this upheaval in her esthetic indicates Benglis’ need to strip away the ruffles and flourishes that have placed her among America’s most significant sculptors of the past few decades, to strip her work down to some core motifs, to Ur-gestures that try to do justice to the intense panoply of nature.

James Yood