Martin Bennett

In a coincidental prelude to “The Geometry of All Four Seasons,” an exhibition of Martin Bennett’s new oil paintings, the doorway of Clint Roenisch Gallery was littered with maple leaves. Suggestive of a loose grid in faded tones of brown, rust, green, and gray, the leaves provided a fortuitous tactile complement to the largest picture on view, Static Image Painting/Brown/Boat/Villa Borghese, 2006–2007. The work features a not-so-scenic nature scene based on a photographic image—taken, as the title makes plain, on the grounds of the famed Roman museum—featuring birds, a man rowing a boat, and a facade of classical architecture in the distance.

But such details become increasingly incidental as one considers the processes to which the source snapshot was subjected. Bennett applied an allover geometric grid, made up of triangular and irregularly shaped motifs, to the picture, then meticulously sanded down the painted surface so that the weave of the canvas began to show through. The resulting silhouette—which resembles a silk-screen print—critiques the stereotypical association of “serious” painting with handcrafted impasto. The uneven shading and highlights on the grid’s shards and facets connote, but do not declare, the optical experience of refraction associated with effects of a camera lens contending with glare. Distorted and abbreviated details—such as the ripples of water, the terrain on the riverbank in the foreground, and an almost caricatured depiction of ducks—register as the possible outcomes of photographic enlargement or digital manipulation of a smaller source image. As with other works in Bennett’s series “Static Image Paintings,” 2000–, this obvious fabrication of the pictorial surface is analogous to the manufacture of artificial landscapes in parks, one of the artist’s continuing preoccupations. Indeed, his most successful pictures are those that lack illusionistic accuracy or chromatic diversity—elements that might otherwise provide a seductively sentimental view of nature.

Bennett’s work, then, attracts critical attention to the construction of the image, while also inviting speculation on the extent to which each site’s location—photographed during the artist’s urban wanderings in Canada, Italy, and England, and always dutifully indicated by the titles—is important to the work’s meaning. This kind of exploration recalls photographs by Richard Long such as A Line Made by Walking, 1967, and Robert Barry’s “Inert Gas” series of 1969, which feature captions indicating locations and other data, which, like Bennett’s titles, at least suggests a certain procedural rigor.

Despite the Conceptualist references, Bennett also makes allusions to modernism. Of special interest are Russian Futurist works that combine seasonal subject matter and geometric patterning, such as Mikhail Larionov’s painting Spring, 1912, or the nature-inspired poetry of his compatriot Velimir Khlebnikov, who invented a mystical cult of geometry that proclaimed history to be an illusion. Featuring the vertical spray of a fountain reflected in water, Static Image Painting/Blue/Fountain/Moose Jaw, 2005–2007, is reminiscent of James McNeil Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, ca. 1874, a work that similarly relies on the compositional competition between abstract surface pattern and the image of an outdoor spectacle that is equal parts natural setting and man-made contrivance. This competition—expressed in a manner that represses, but never dismisses, conventional painterly pleasures—provides Bennett’s project with formidable value, both critical and contemplative.

Dan Adler