Philadelphia

Lynda Benglis, Toyopet Crown, 1989, stainless steel mesh, aluminum, 66 x 59 x 13".

Lynda Benglis, Toyopet Crown, 1989, stainless steel mesh, aluminum, 66 x 59 x 13".

Lynda Benglis

Locks Gallery

Lynda Benglis, Toyopet Crown, 1989, stainless steel mesh, aluminum, 66 x 59 x 13".

“Lynda Benglis: Everything Flows (1980–2013)” encouraged viewers to think of the artist’s imposing metalized pleat pieces and intimately scaled ceramic sculptures as closely related bodies of work, despite their significant formal discrepancies. Allowing the two series, created between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, to coexist in all their difference, this exhibition revealed commonalities vital to Benglis’s practice, and the show’s title signaled at least one unifying thread: the artist’s belief that “everything flows.”

Pleat pieces such as Trippel II, 1988–90, and Toyopet Crown, 1989, capture the fluidity of drapery, conjuring images of ethereal caryatids. They bear traces of Benglis’s hand where she scrunched the initially pliable mesh structures before spraying them, using a metalizing gun, with liquid aluminum that dried into hard shells, sometimes more, sometimes less shiny. The ceramic sculptures, also hard, dry, and manifesting various levels of sheen, show records of gravity’s pull and of manhandling in ways that convey their originally malleable identities. Anagama 5, 1995, and Knot/Hat A, 1992, are made of hollow or flat sags of clay, respectively; Draped Knot B, 1993, features long, thick extrusions wrestled into contorted squiggles; and Terracotta Helmet, 1993, is decorated with patterns left by fingers repetitively indenting the formerly soft surfaces. The glazes, of course, were also fluid once, and the diverse effects of their varying viscosities and chemical compounds are especially noticeable in works such as Toltec “Q” Doll “B,” 1993, in which one glaze dried to the texture of a burned marshmallow while another puddled to form toe-shaped marks, not to mention the appearance of a vein of gold visible to those who looked as intently as a prospector.

If these metalized and fired objects expressed fluidity through their forms and their signs of process, the three fountains installed along with them drove the theme home. Nugget I and II, 2010–11, on the main floor of the exhibition, though understandably not plugged in, evoked their function through squirts of silver—suggestive of congealed dew—which adorned the brain-like bronzes. Pink Lady, 2013, a polyurethane tower in delicate gradations of bright pink, gloriously sputtered water onto the gallery’s rooftop garden.

Art historian Anna Chave, in her essay for the exhibition catalogue, ties the artist’s consistent interest in media that flow to French feminist theory (Irigaray, Cixous), arguing that Benglis was part of a “breakthrough generation of female artists, who aggressively violated medium boundaries, effectively anticipat[ing] the 1970s French feminists’ call for a distinctively fluid form of female expression.” Chave’s interpretation makes persuasive sense of Benglis’s early career but does not fully account for the solidity of the ceramic sculptures or manifest durability of the pleat pieces and the fountains. Benglis’s mantra “everything flows” should be taken at its word: Everything, even apparently inert matter, flows. The artist asks of herself and her viewers that we be open to the constant flux of our physical and social worlds, and she emphasizes the shared: Fluidity, for her, isn’t just a feminine quality to be marshaled in opposition to male solidity, but a way to get beyond such dichotomies. Standing on the roof of Locks Gallery, mesmerized by the gurgling water streaming somewhat erratically down the Dr. Seussian stacks of Pink Lady, its hot pink evoking exotic flora, brash lipstick, organic decay, and plastic permanence, I caught a glimmer of what a world of Benglis’s making might be like.

Bibiana Obler