Lakewood, CO

Phil Bender

The Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar

Phil Bender might best be described as a pure assemblagist, his art being derived wholly from collecting and ordering. The term assemblage typically denotes work constructed from found objects that have been manipulated or recombined, but Bender’s approach to assemblage blurs into a Duchampian presentation of readymades. The Denver-based artist arranges commonplace objects such as toolboxes, potholders, and matchbooks into rows or grids of like things on walls, floors, and shelves. His recent exhibition “Last Place” was Bender’s largest solo show of a nearly three-decade career, featuring forty-one assemblages made between 2004 and 2008 that together—by the compulsive artist’s own count—incorporate 1,109 component objects.

As a student in the 1970s, Bender tinkered with variations on Pop art and began to incorporate found objects into his paintings and sculptures, eventually realizing that assemblage afforded a way to make use of his compulsion to collect. The use of found objects, of course, has been a constant in art since the Dadaists, while serialism dates to the 1960s, with arrangements of images in grids cropping up in the work of artists from Andy Warhol to the Bechers and Stephen Shore. But very few other artists have made a combination of the two practices the focal point of their work. In the ’60s, Arman began producing what he called “accumulations,” but these lack Bender’s obsessive manner of formal arrangement. Younger artists have produced Benderesque works—Damien Hirst’s Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purposes of Understanding, 1991, is one striking example—but these tend to be the exceptions in their practices, rather than the rule.

As simple as Bender’s works may appear, they function on a surprising number of visual, conceptual, and emotional levels, each assemblage becoming far more than the sum of its parts. As used objects, the components of his works carry with them a history and a sense of nostalgia. At the same time, Bender recontextualizes the objects in their own right, allowing viewers to see them in fresh ways; suddenly, previously overlooked stepladders, potato mashers or egg-beaters are revealed as formally fascinating objects. And the repetitive pattern of the grid gives each collection a visually compelling presence no matter what its constituent elements.

Perhaps no single piece better exemplifies these qualities than Yardsticks, 2008, (Bender isn’t one for fancy titles), a group of seventy-six of the rulers, some dating as far back as the 1940s, mounted on the wall horizontally. Not only are these eminently functional things intriguing as artifacts, with their imprinted period advertisements, but as objects they also have a satisfyingly clean, trim form.

Other selections of note include B. Mitchell’s Country Pictures, 2008, a classic fusion of high and low with a clever visual twist. It consists of a wall-mounted array of a dozen slightly faded dime-store reproductions of the same folksy set of twelve rural scenes. Grids within a grid. On view elsewhere on opposite sides of a passageway were Beaded Belts, Part 1 and Part 2, 2004 and 2008. Each group contains more than fifty of the once ubiquitous souvenir-shop staples, organized horizontally on the wall by length. Bender might be a hoarder of junk, but he has consistently shown that serious art can be made with the most trivial-seeming ingredients.

Kyle MacMillan