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Christopher Benson: INSIDE and OUT



Christopher Benson, "ACME Bread," 2014, oil on linen, 42 x 48 in.


“From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.” — Ernest Hemingway

I was born in New England in 1960 and grew up in the orbit of The Rhode Island School of Design where my parents were both undergraduates and where my grandfather had taught in the 1940s. Any painter who came up in those postwar decades has lived through one of the most complex, challenging ages of American art; a period marked throughout by constant innovations of style, theory and posturing. Despite that shifting terrain, I fastened early-on to a kind of modernist-inflected representation that made sense to me, and to which I have stubbornly stuck ever since. This preference dates to the first major painting exhibition I ever attended when my mother, a lapsed painter herself, took me at age 16 to see Richard Diebenkorn’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York. By then I had been working in oils for 4 years, with the expectation that I would take up a career as a book illustrator. In the winter after that trip, I began studying with a modernist painter (Peter Devine, whose essay is also published here). By the following spring, the lingering influence of the Diebenkorn show and Peter’s instruction together diverted me away from illustration and set me once and for all on the track to a painter’s life. What struck me when at the show in New York, and was reinforced in my subsequent studies, was how antithetical to illustration modern painting could be. The marriage of expressionistic abstraction with figuration in the most mundane domestic subjects is now such a clichéd stylistic device that it’s easy to overlook how that approach changed the way we look at and experience paintings. Diebenkorn didn’t invent this method, it was just an extension of the revolution the Impressionists and Post Impressionists had started a century earlier. But he brought something new to it that had a huge impact on me: His surfaces were raw, and more implicitly abstract than the prettier styles of the Impressionists. This made his modernism more clearly distinct to me as a young painter. In the years that followed, I became a student of the whole lineage of modernists who painted in this way, from Cezanne, Matisse, Bonnard and Morandi in Europe, to Americans like David Park, Richard Diebenkorn and Fairfield Porter.

The common thread in that tradition that has driven my own efforts since I first noticed it, is its integration of surface and form with non-narrative pictorial content. As full-on abstraction was taking hold through the twentieth century, all the artists noted above continued to make pictures, while yet abandoning the illustrative hierarchies and stylistic embellishments that defined representation before them. In that sense, they were abstracting the narrative alongside the picture itself. The Modern painters didn’t tell stories in the way that a Delacroix or Gericault would have done. Instead, by couching their pictorial tableaux in a painterly distillation of shapes and surfaces — and preserving just enough of the familiar to invite the viewer into the work — they enable us to build our own narratives from it that are potentially more direct and truthful than any tale told by a distant author. The object of the painting itself thus became more real than any story (including that of the artist’s representational virtuosity) on which it might otherwise depend to impress or excite the viewer’s admiration. And like the viewer, the painter was also left to discover some inherent truth revealed by the work itself, rather than projected onto it by any predetermined narrative.

That capacity to enable a subjective experience in both maker and viewer also sets modern representation apart from the postmodern conceptualism that followed it. Like the academic tradition against which the Modernists originally rebelled in the 1870s, the Postmodernists cycled back a century later to a similarly academic project. Once again we find ourselves in an age where the artists’ purpose is not to discover meaning through their work, but to manufacture it conceptually ahead of that process and then use the work to illustrate it.

Despite the supposed advancements that have shaped art throughout most of my career since the early 1980s, I still find modern representation to be among the subtlest, most advanced, most free and progressive innovations ever achieved in painting. That belief is reinforced by the fact that many of the greatest painters from the long historical path leading to Modernism evolved to something quite similar after long careers making more conventionally narrative forms of art. The late works of Rembrandt, Velasquez, Turner and Goya all especially come to mind. But whatever high-minded rationalizations I might concoct for my method, the simpler truth is that I make paintings like this myself because they are the kind I like most to look at.


— Christopher Benson

Artist ( Description ): 

Christopher Benson

Venue ( Address ): 

Paul Thiebaud Gallery, 645 Chestnut Street, San Francisco, CA 94133

Paul Thiebaud Gallery , San Francisco

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