Lynda Benglis review by Siofra McSherry
This travelling retrospective runs in Los Angeles alongside the Getty’s major Pacific Standard Time exhibitions, highlighting the artist’s close association with the city where she worked for several years in the late seventies. Benglis considered California a refuge from the more masculine culture of the New York art world. While there the Abstract Expressionists dripped and ripped the paint and canvas, Benglis worked at creating polyurethane foam and latex colours that hardened to form paint and canvas in one. These forms pour off the wall and ooze gelatinously along the floor, sending up the two-dimensional radical abstractions of Jackson Pollock and other male contemporaries. The latexes and rubbery plastics hold associations of fetishized skin or lava, and with their bright colours are both sensual and amusing. Phantom, comprised of five cheerfully spooky day-glo pieces, pours from the wall looking structurally unlikely. Phosphorescent light is embedded within the form, causing the sculptures to shift beneath the eye under ultra-violet light.
Pushing the technological boundaries of material is always of interest to Benglis. She recalls showing Phantom at MIT in 1971, confounding the institution’s structural engineers who could not understand how the three or four hundred pound plastic scupltures were supported. Benglis had experimented with cellular cross-hatching to provide internal support to the structure. Throughout her work, soft appears hard, and metal is coaxed into soft folds and knots recalling fabric. Po-faced bronze is cast into amusing or disturbing forms, such as 1969’s Eat Meat, an enormous fecal pile of metal. Rough-shod industrial forms are ornamented with multicoloured glitter and glass beads, as if a creative four-year-old had decided to enliven them.
The artist’s feminist political persona is a clear presence throughout the show. Polaroid size reproductions represent the images that sparked her seventies body controversy, including the notorious 1974 Artforum advertisment in which the artist appears wearing only sunglasses and a dildo. The exhibition also features one of five metal dildoes dedicated to the offended members of the Artforum board on that occasion. The appearance of this material in a show otherwise very focussed on form, surface and materiality is disconcerting, and illuminates the feminist aspects in even her most abstract work. It is a spotlight which at times shines so brightly as to obscure more subtle concerns. Her fascination with ornamentation, for example, might easily be read as an attempt to bring feminine decorative clichés into antagonistic relation with masculine stereotypes of sculptural form, and her extraordinary achievements in polyurethane moulding likewise confined to a simplistic dialogue with the male Abstract Expressionists.
The more psychologically complex sexual and familial dramas represented in her video work here - The Great Bow-Wow (1976), Female Sensibility (1973) - and the artist’s commitment to the interrogation of sculptural form and surface deepen her political concerns into a source of conceptual and thematic strength. Her more recent works appear to take a more minimal approach, monochromatic red and black sculptures closely engaged with texture and process and in the context of this exhibition, transcending the dichotomies of gender, form and ornamentation that animated her earlier work, and sublimating the political within the formal.