James Benning, After Howard, 2013, latex housepaint on plywood, 14 1/8 x 25 3/4".

James Benning, After Howard, 2013, latex housepaint on plywood, 14 1/8 x 25 3/4".

James Benning


James Benning, After Howard, 2013, latex housepaint on plywood, 14 1/8 x 25 3/4".

Often misread as a structuralist filmmaker, James Benning is really more of a landscape poet. His work reflects a complete surrender to the mired totality of the natural world, yet he is ever mindful of humankind’s tinkerings and contaminations. In recent years, Benning’s oeuvre has extended beyond cinema—though, thankfully, he had not completely neglected it. His 2011 Two Cabins project was inspired by a perceived affinity between two philosopher-seekers of the American back-to-nature dream, Henry David Thoreau and Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski. On his own property in the Sierra Mountains of Southern California, Benning meticulously reconstructed the cabins of both men based on details left behind in their writings, as well as, in Kaczynski’s case, FBI photos: The work is not so much an act of appropriation as a living (and lived-in) homage to the mystique of the self-styled outsider. This project formed the basis of Two Cabins by JC, Benning’s 2011 book with Julie Ault, and his 2012 film Stemple Pass. More recently, within those cabins, Benning has hung his own remakes of paintings by eight of his favorite “outsider” artists. These paintings were the focus of his recent exhibition, along with one quilt, After Missouri Petway, 2014,which was installed across from a fake Mondrian as a means of calling attention to the aesthetic kinship between the great European master and the self-taught daughter of a former slave.

Here, in After Darger, are the Vivian Girls, being strangled in a vast field by soldiers in Unionesque navy-blue uniforms. BRAIN,’ WARSHE- / R. YES,’ BRAIN / WASHER, screams After Howard, 2013, a handpainted sign that is also a poem, a three-fingered hand pointing at the final BRAIN like a conductor fanning rhythm out of all that cacophonous punctuation. After Ramírez, 2014, shows a deer standing on a stage fashioned out of white piano keys framed by frilly curtains and staring quizzically, its head and torso lovingly patterned with lines that echo those forming the curtains. Are we to evaluate these homages in comparison to the originals? The artist’s very working method implies that there is no easy answer. In the second room of the gallery were eight framed digital prints, photographs of art books opened to reproductions of one or two works by the artists cited in the previous room. Though none show any of the first room’s paintings, this was a reminder of the unsurprising fact that Benning worked from reproductions rather than from originals.

Benning’s act of autistic copying—down to his painstaking attempts to use the same materials as his predecessors—becomes itself a folk craft. In an art market obsessed with authenticity (especially in the case of outsider art, in which it becomes an object of fetishization), Benning puts forth the “dangerous” proposition that what matters is not originality but feeling.

The exhibition began with a wall drawing of a grid of numbers illegible to the math-challenged like myself—a code employed by Kaczynski in writing his diaries—and concluded with a silk-screened quotation, penned in Thoreau’s own beautiful, leaning cursive script, in which the writer extols the yearning for an uncorrupted form of pure seeing. The two men transposed the very American Puritanism of their forebears into their own personal extremisms in relating to the external world, and both ultimately failed in their attempts to turn an ideal into a lifestyle. Kaczynski, after all, ended up behind bars, while Thoreau spent considerably less time at Walden Pond than is commonly believed and later regarded his total immersion in nature as little more than a brief experiment. There is something poignant in these very human failures, Benning implies, something perhaps worth preserving.

Travis Jeppesen