Sadie Benning: Sleep Rock
Camden Arts Centre
19 April – 24 June, 2018
Review by Piers Masterson
When I first saw Sadie Benning’s ground-breaking ‘cut and paste’ video work in the early 1990s, with their cool soundtracks and deadpan narrations, it was clear that here was an artist who was ahead of their time and whose influence can be seen in practices from Mark Leckey to Heather Phillipson. For their first solo exhibition in London, Benning presents new work that continues their interest in autobiography and found imagery which now finds form through a filmic sequence of paintings and collages. References from the beginning Benning’s career were often nostalgic for a bygone America, one found in 1950s ‘B’ Movies where suburban prosperity coexisted with biker gangs and the looming threat of nuclear war. Now, Benning collages these references from scenes in found photographs that are then fixed in crystal like layers of resin and painted over with bright blobs of enamels.
‘Out of the Bag’ (2018), is representative of Benning’s doubling up of references in the sequence of small panels, the smiley face icon first connected with Hippies and the Peace movement which had been re-purposed in the late 1980s by Acid House and Watchmen is multiplied and layered over. The illustration of two cats appears to be lifted from a school primer that suggests to the viewer that tjhey are still using a personal code to relay hidden messages. Motifs from Benning’s breakthrough work of the early 1990s still appear, with James Dean and other variations of the hustlers and bad girls and ‘B’ movie icons now fixed in resin. Some of the mementos are of pop culture icons from Reagan era America who have become contaminated by history; Pee Wee has the distorted face of Paul Reuben, the disgraced 1980s children’s television entertainer.
The larger painting ‘Hotel Fashion’ (2018), contains a photo of the room that Janis Jopling was found dead in. The scene is filled out with a harsh scarlet emphasizing the singer’s status as the wild woman of rock and is offset by a fragment of what appears to be a section of mosaics. The third element in this work is a photo of a man in a suit standing before an audience, his arms are raised out and he smiles ecstatically, as if he is being raptured. This is placed to the right of the composition, the rest of which is black with a series of blue abstract squiggles suggesting neon lights at night. In its delivery to the viewer, Hotel Fashion is a heady mixture of the sacred and profane, emulating the persona of Kenneth Anger.
In the second smaller gallery, the overarching themes that tie the works together are even clearer. ‘Bridal et.’ (2018), features a still from educational films that Benning was shown at school. They were intended to entrench the conventional family values and gender roles espoused by the Reagan/Bush administration within teenagers. Benning parodied the moral warnings and stereotypes of these public educational films in an earlier video work ‘Girl Power’ (1993), but the sinister nature of their implied threat now appears have been recycled, it can be argued, as Reagan has achieved a deified status amongst millennial neo-conservatives backing Trump. Facing ‘Bridal et.’ across the gallery is ‘Swan’ (2018) which depicts a large portrait of Brandon Teena, the trans man whose 1993 murder became the subject of an Oscar winning film and went on to transform the mainstream debate about transgender awareness in the US. Both the subject and Benning’s formal treatment evoke the same feelings of nostalgia. The portrait of Brandon Teena drawn in black lines of casein which gives the work the ability to act like a stained-glass depiction found on a church and is placed over a collaged crowd scene that is blurred and almost obscured, and subsequently takes on the role of a congregation. The Swan is painted in a way that makes it hover like an early computer graphic effect familiar to anyone who learned image manipulation on an obsolete Commodore computer. To the right of this is ‘Parking Lot’ (2018), where a large tulip rendered in resin grows from an image of a gathering group of boy racers. The trashy aesthetic of the quasi-masculine car gang and its associated sub-culture appears to be the antithesis of the boldly colourful flower. But the gang pictured has a poignant reference to the hatful gang that raped and murdered Brandon Teena. Directly opposite is ‘Sleep Rock’ (2018), which has a clenched fist painted by Benning in a style recalling that of Marlene Dumas, which is unambiguous in expressing a feeling of suppressed rage and as such, binds the panel works into a polyptych that illuminates the martyrdom of Brandon Teena.