As a legendary and enduring figure on the international art stage, Louisiana-born conceptual sculptor Lynda Benglis is renowned for crafting pained yet sensual anthropomorphic works out of melted bronze, latex, ceramics, polyurethane, and glass. Bursting into the public consciousness with her transgressive, fearless, and unforgettable nude advertisement in Artforum (the magazine refused to give her editorial space for the image) in 1974, the artist garnered much public praise and shock for posing with a dildo between her legs in order to subvert the male gaze, binary gender roles, and notions of bodily objectification. After decades of consistently producing arresting and audacious sculptures with themes of sexuality and mortality, Benglis is once again in the public eye with her current solo retrospective at Culver City’s prestigious Blum & Poe.
With her work represented in such illustrious institutions as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and London’s Tate Modern as well as being the recipient of the 1975 Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts grants (1979, 1990), Lynda Benglis is undoubtedly an icon and iconoclast of the modern era.
HILLS AND CLOUDS (2014). Artwork: © Lynda Benglis/Licensed by VAGA, New York.
Following the massive critical success of a sweeping 2011 Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) exhibition, this eponymous presentation highlights her decades of monumental work by dedicating one room or area of this massive gallery space to each of the artist’s many signature styles, including painted ceramics, figurative aluminum sculptures, and bronze fountains.
One of the most compelling and commanding works on display here is the eleven-foot stainless steel and phosphorescent cast polyurethane structure, HILLS AND CLOUDS (2014). First installed outdoors at New York’s famed Storm King Art Center, this landscape piece recalls the glorious live oak trees and hanging moss of the artist’s youth with it’s gentle, rolling structure. This soothing shape also echoes the waters of the Pelican State’s famed bayous as well as the comforting womb. Somehow, this weighty sculpture hewn from industrial materials appears ethereal, buoyant, as well as utterly flimsy, and dilapidated perhaps as a statement about the dual nature of the human condition. Adding to this sculpture’s otherworldly quality, it also glows in the dark.
In the outdoor garden, her globular bronze fountains also possess a radioactive quality with their resemblance to the mushroom clouds of a nuclear explosion. However, all of these sculptures feature surprisingly cheery titles. This juxtaposition is further heightened by fountains having a connotation of luxury. Additionally, water undoubtedly has a life-giving quality as it is the foundation of civilization.
Benglis often forges her biomorphic sculptures with a look of corrosion and deterioration to signal a reminder of death or memento mori. Some of her sagging lumps, knots, and contorted poses have been coined “frozen gestures” due to their humanoid aesthetic. We can see these agonized configurations in her oversized aluminum sculptures on display here, including the corroding THE FALL CAUGHT (2016) and FIGURES 2,4,5, and 6 (2009). These works feature a haunting quality resembling the perfectly preserved Pompeian townspeople tragically dying as they were covered in tons of ash following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. This literal objectification of the human body in her figurative sculpture lays the groundwork for Benglis’s lifelong examination of gender politics in her work.
Making her way in the male-dominated New York art scene of the 1960s following the legendary reign of the Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Benglis adapted the style of this movement as well as traditional sculpture to make feminist statements about the human form and the art world.
With her signature, Pollock-esque drip-painted sculptures, Benglis made history by being the first artist to combine the two historic art forms. In this more conservative era, painting was still considered to be the more noble medium, but the artist wished to change this thinking by marrying the two. She also saw the amalgamation of painting and sculpture as a way of challenging binary gender roles. The raw, masculine energy of the gestural Abstract Expressionism exists here in perfect harmony with the sumptuous shapes of her sculptural forms. She essentially carved her own path in as a woman in a man’s world and her unapologetically feminist work is said to have inspired many other iconic women in the art world, including Cindy Sherman.
On top of her feminist and art historical themes, location is of much importance in Benglis’s work as she is known for blending Mardi Gras-inspired, vibrantly hued Maximalism with New York’s prominent and refined sculptural Minimalism of the 1960s. More recently, Benglis has adopted chicken-wire armature into her handmade paper. This inclusion is most likely a nod to her residence in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They bear resemblance to the animal hides and snake skins often found in this region. Their bone and sand tones also pay homage to the strikingly picturesque Southwest.
Merging a myriad of opposing influences, inspiring locales, artistic styles, and grand notions, including birth, sexuality, feminism, mortality, minimalism, and maximalism, Lynda Benglis’s nostalgic yet progressive, crumbling yet radiant conceptual sculptures reminds us of the transitory nature of human life and our civilizations.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.