New York

Sadie Benning


Sadie Benning has garnered widespread acclaim since she was a teenager for her do-it-yourself approach to artmaking, especially among those of her postpunk peers who favor collaboration over individuality. Her career arc, though fairly well known, bears repeating: In 1989, as a teenager, Benning began to make candid, diaristic videos in her bedroom with a Fisher-Price PixelVision toy camera. Ten years later, she co-founded the feminist indie band Le Tigre. After years of incorporating politics, queer sexuality, and personal history into her work, that Benning has taken an increasing interest in abstraction should come as no surprise. Like a fun-house mirror, however, her new work contracts and contorts her established preoccupation with eroticism, sex, and desire without once concealing it. Though no longer trading in representation rife with emotion or pathos, Benning’s recent output sees her at her most inspiring.

Scheduled to coincide with a weekend screening of Benning’s two-channel video installation Play Pause, 2006, at the Dia Art Foundation space in Chelsea, this exhibition presented viewers with the full range of Benning’s multifaceted practice, including work in drawing, video, installation, and music. The sole PixelVision video in the show, One Liner, 2003, which follows a pen as it draws a series of dots (and seems to try but fail to make a straight line), here provided a visible link between Benning’s past and present forays into abstraction, while referencing her ongoing interest in the intimate and the handmade, the bodily and the tender.

On display throughout the gallery were nine small geometric colored pencil drawings (all 2007) depicting shafted and rounded shapes colliding and merging with one another, as if engaged in various stages of sexual activity. Inspired by Gordon Matta-Clark’s use of heavy boards to mount his photographs, Benning has attached these delicate renderings to rectangular pieces of bookbinding board with softly rounded corners. The drawings’ candy-colored palette distinguishes these works from the monumental and vivid “Head” paintings (1999–2006) that debuted at the Wexner Center for the Arts earlier this year. Instead of that series’ strong graphic line or the dense pixilation of her videos, Benning here makes pencil marks that are cautious and mutable. (The icon depicting poop going “back and forth forever” devised by Miranda July for her film Me and You and Everyone We Know [2005] comes to mind).

In the center of the room, a record player with a series of six LPs, titled Play Pause Tapes: Soundtracks for Looking and Listening, 2007, provided a sound track of jarring rhythms and repetitive beats that energized these otherwise placid drawings and further riffed on the abstract tenor of the show. The LPs, reformatted from cassettes of the kind that Benning made in her youth with a boom box and turntable, feature spliced-up funk, disco, soul, and R&B, juxtaposed with isolated instrumental sounds. Visitors were encouraged to change the records and experiment with Benning’s eclectic mixes, an enticing offer that yielded some pleasurable results.

The title of the show, “Form of a Waterfall,” was a reference to the DC Comics animated teenage superheroes “The Wonder Twins,” who change shape by commanding “Form of a ___!” Certainly the eroticized shapes intermingling in Benning’s new drawings engage in transformative actions as well, offering a porous reading of sexuality and gendered identity. Perhaps these works should be considered alongside other contemporary art incorporating sexual themes, such the collectively produced journal LTTR, whose fifth issue, “Positively Nasty,” provocatively surveys queer desire. However, taking into consideration Benning’s figurative work, for which she is better known, this show of exclusively abstract works proved that she is able to comfortably navigate through abstraction and figuration while retaining the rare ability to create an effective metaphoric mash-up.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler