Los Angeles

Billy Al Bengston, Honolulu Watercolor, July, 1985, watercolor on paper, 42 1/2 × 29 1/2".

Billy Al Bengston, Honolulu Watercolor, July, 1985, watercolor on paper, 42 1/2 × 29 1/2".

Billy Al Bengston

Samuel Freeman

Billy Al Bengston, Honolulu Watercolor, July, 1985, watercolor on paper, 42 1/2 × 29 1/2".

The outsize personality of Billy Al Bengston looms large in the prescribed historical narrative of Southland art—all wan sunshine and Ferus Gallery machismo—and even larger as the framing device for his own work. The artist’s website details his early migration from Kansas; his study at the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles; his burgeoning interest in ceramics (which he “ditched” for painting in 1957); and his subsequent biography, metered in marriage, child-rearing, surfing, and motorcycle racing, among other milestones and pursuits. It also specifies the coordinates between which Bengston has shuttled for some decades now: Venice, California, and Honolulu. These locales are summoned in Bengston’s titles and motifs, and have contributed to the sense of his having reimagined the modernist ragpicker as a free-spirited beachcomber. Given the conspicuousness of these perambulations, Bengston’s most recent show at Samuel Freeman assumed particular significance as an exhibition manifested in the artist’s absence. Here, Bengston allowed Freeman the privilege of raiding the icebox while he was away. The result was a show spanning five decades, from 1960s chevrons, to ’90s windowpane-framed island vistas and seascapes, to recent evocations of the moon. While capacious in its inclusion of style, period, and medium, with “Billy Al,” Freeman nevertheless delivered a tightly conceived and thematically driven show.

One large gallery displayed six “Dracula” paintings from the early ’70s arranged in a gridded cluster. As tightly honed and with ratios as firmly locked in as the concentrically organized oils of Albers, these acrylics uphold the shared format of a central square within a larger square. The smaller box of each work holds a specimen from the titular orchid genus, here seen in profile, its petals splayed. The forty-eight-inch-square canvases are covered with distinctive surface treatments: for example, San Blas Dracula, 1972, is smeared with a frothy yellow that reads as dried pollen, while Isla Coloradito Dracula from that same year is crossed with a trail of drips upon a darkened, bloodred field. Nearby, a grouping of works on paper included Venice Watercolor, 1976, a triptych of narrow panels of overlapping lime and cream circles and floating deep-mauve flora; January Watercolor, 1986, a striking copse on marigold, its foreground interrupted by the outline of Bengston’s pet dog, and August C #501, 1985. This last, a watercolor whose multihued brushstrokes suggesting foliage were overlaid by a solid pink lattice, established a precedent reinforced by other works, in which the conceit of the support as illusionistic window became ever more pronounced. Honolulu Watercolor, July, 1985, has multiple scrims overlaying its scenery: The largest of these grids is purposively skewed to exaggerate the formal device, whose visual effect is one of infinite regress.

Taken together, the collected works demonstrated long-standing concerns addressed across far-flung work spaces while revealing each iteration to be specific in its material and compositional resolution. In this, Freeman demonstrated the advantages of curatorial objectivity. (This at a moment when the mere fact of an artist allowing a curator to organize his show without his direct involvement in the selection or presentation of the works is indeed noteworthy.) Still, Bengston was not wholly absent, and the exhibition was the better for it. In a separate room—in fact, the gallery’s kitchen—the artist mounted his own show-within-a-show. Comprising brightly patterned and vaguely tropical rayon shirts, each embroidered with the outline of the same flower that is so prominent elsewhere, from small-scale paintings to a room divider ushering viewers in the front door, the offering had the feel of a pop-up shop. Highlighting the shirts’ utilitarian potential, such guests as fellow Ferus alum Ed Moses adorned themselves with them for the opening. Thereafter, the garments came to rest on hangers dangling from L brackets mounted to the walls, from which they gently swayed—evidencing that their animation was not contingent on that of their maker. With or without him, they still move.

Suzanne Hudson