New York

Martha Benzing

Caren Golden Fine Art

Over the last few years, Martha Benzing has made a medium of M&Ms. She has endowed the coated candies with the splendor of precious jewels, or lovingly leached them of their pigment, leaving them striped or polka-dotted or simply bare naked. A group of small canvases shown last year had been “painted” with M&Ms and partially melted cough drops, then scaled in shiny resin. Benzing has now brought a new measure of refinement and control to her technique, resulting in her largest works yet: the “M&M and Kool-Aid Series” (all works 1997). After being emptied of their chocolate insides, M&Ms were placed on calligraphy paper that had been soaked in Kool-Aid. The pigments soaked into the clamp paper, with many of the candies leaving their white m signature. Then the paper, with a few stray pieces still stuck to it, was mounted on canvas and given a luscious coat of resin—a protection that, like shrink-wrap, makes a product that much more desirable for being inaccessible.

A process so daftly idiosyncratic runs the risk of becoming schtick (it’s hard to resist “eye candy” puns, for instance). Yet these pieces arc unmistakably ambitious: more grandly scaled and less minimal than Benzing’s previous work, they have an allover patterning reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism. In a sense, they can be seen as a feminine, nonpainterly response to a macho aesthetic that reveled in paint for paint’s sake.

At six by four feet, the largest piece looks like a magnification of some kind of microscopic activity, with dark dots of color—green, turquoise, and pink—surrounded by paler trails, streaks, flares, or halos. A vertical band of dots with tails swarms across the composition toward another band of more solid dots, like sperm swimming toward eggs. Indeed, all the works have a sense of preserved kineticism; one can visualize in them the act of their creation, the M&Ms as tiny pigment dispensers roaming the canvas, suddenly immobilized by a flood of resin. Two other pieces play up Benzing’s candy-colored palette to maximum effect. One is chiefly in two shades of yellow (one pastel, the other more intense), with touches of pink, purple, lavender, and umber scattered across the canvas in a bright play of pattern, out of which two pale bands subtly emerge. In the other work, a pattern of black, hot and pale pink, yellow, and turquoise dots is slightly less dense at the center of the picture; rather than motion converging toward the center, the effect is more like an evacuation.

The latest of the works in the series is the most “painterly,” as most of the pigments were almost thoroughly dissolved, forming bright flares against a dark purply-brown ground. Layers of collage, including one podlike grouping of a dozen ghostly M&M imprints, brought a feeling of depth, suggesting the thick, poisonous atmosphere of another planet, or an undiscovered ocean-floor ecosystem. In all, Benzing’s show was a wily mix of high intentions and humble materials—serious beauty attained through seriously goofy techniques.

Julie Caniglia