Hyperallergic: Lynda Benglis Basks in the Light of Her Art

June 23, 2022

Natalie Haddad

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In Lynda Benglis’s latest exhibition, Excavation at Blum & Poe, the sensuality of her sculptures is as seductive as ever, but the forces of gravity that defined her seminal poured latex and polyurethane pieces are traded for lightness. The large bronze sculptures, accompanied by a room of small ceramics, are spiral bursts that further the artist’s inquiry into the “gestural and the knot” as they investigate negative and positive space. This explanation conveys the formal concerns but not the energy of the works, and the sense of ecstatic motion that they capture. 

The large sculptures result from a process of 3D scanning the small ones, creating foam models, and then casting the bronze using the lost-wax method. In some cases, the twisting, cylindrical forms of the bronze works evoke tire treads or fragments of blown-out tires, references to motion that use an organic medium to gesture toward the synthetic: the smooth surface of Black Widow (2021), coated in a black patina, could be rubber, while its sheen resembles porcelain or a shell, and its unfurling spiral suggests a snail. The most striking of the sculptures are a luminous metallic (high-polished White Tombasil or Everdur bronze). The meandering Yellow Tail (2020) twists around itself in a figure eight; springing up from the ground, Striking Cobra (2020) surges out into the space of the gallery like a bolt of liquid light. 

Benglis has long produced works that challenge gravity—the cast aluminum Wing (1970) is a lava-like agglomeration of viscous drips that defies physics to jut off the wall; the drama is heightened in 1971’s goopy, phosphorescent Phantom. What’s less evident, particularly with the polished bronze works, is the tension between weight and lightness, and, by extension, the artist’s play with the politics of the abject. 

In past works such as the influential Contraband (1969), Phantom, or even the crystalline, geologically inspired Hills and Clouds (2013–15), Benglis confronts the implicit coding of the abject (or the informe, as it was redefined in 1990s art theory) as female by embracing the unruliness of her forms, but refuting the conflation of flowing or oozing masses of matter with lowness or passivity. In the tradition of the carnivalesque that animates much of her work, she turns the signifiers of abjection on their head and reclaims all that is colorful, soft, expanding, or uncontained—undefinable as either subject or object, as Julia Kristeva might say—to produce an active, joyful aesthetics. This quality endows Benglis’s art with its celebratory feminist politics, based less in a straightforward affirmation of sexuality (as is sometimes stated of her) than in an exuberant alliance of touch and thought. 

In this sense, Excavation’s brilliant reflective spirals that stand eye to eye with or tower over viewers lack some of the political immediacy of her earlier works, made at a time when color and play were transgressive within the context of high art—and, as many critics have pointed out, artifice and vulgarity were antithetical to the process-oriented aims of her post-Minimalist peers. Gone here are the glittering and Day-Glo colors that exposed the absurdity of post-Minimalism’s claims against illusion. The small ceramic forms on pedestals that occupy one gallery space veer toward the elemental forces of nature, while the shimmering bronzes are almost sublime. 

That’s not to say that the work has no political relevance. The most remarkable aspect of Excavation is its sense of freedom. A lifelong experimenter, driven to defy physical obstacles in realizing objects, Benglis’s unabashed embrace of illusion is on full display. But no longer is the illusion in a dialectic with the object to create a tension between the symbolic and material reality. The metallic sculptures revel in the dematerialized play of light, without need or desire to be grounded—in the physics of gravity or formal concerns with process and material, despite the rigorous technique involved in their creation. To paraphrase an often-quoted passage from Nietzsche, the visual chaos that Benglis has defiantly cultivated for decades has given birth to a dancing star. 

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Blum & Poe Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo will be closed for the summer from August 14 through August 28.