Christian Benefiel: Push, Pull, Resist at 1708 Gallery

AMARA CRAIGHILL

Written in response to Christian Benefiels’ exhibition, Push, Pull, Resist on view at 1708 Gallery October 28 to December 3, 2011.

Christian Benefiel’s lively, nonobjective sculptures playfully challenge the viewer with their physicality and materiality. They combine the appeal of a post-industrial aesthetic with the newly exotic charm of the hand-constructed. His assemblages create and manipulate space. With their large scale, emphasis on process, and interactive nature, his works bear the legacies of postminimalism, process art, and the beginning of a return to specialized craftsmanship.

Time is an active component in his sculptures. The viewer is aware of the time it took to create the works, many of which are in constant movement so that one experiences them temporally. With no principle angle from which to view the sculptures, the observer experiences them in time as she walks around them. The audience is invited to participate in them, changing the works’ appearance over the course of a viewing. “While the pieces often rest on a principle aesthetic, the true impact of the piece is often brought about through direct, often tactile interaction on behalf of the observer,” Benefiel writes. “The material is meant to be touched, the balance meant to be disturbed.”1

Some works are dependent on their audience for form and meaning. Several respond to motion sensors by inflating or deflating based on the density of the crowd surrounding them. Similarly, Inaction in Action (2011) responds to viewers by inflating as they walk toward it and deflating once they arrive at the space immediately surrounding it. Both One and the Other (2010) and Hatchet Job (2009) are in a constant state of flux, their inflatable centers set to timers. The Efficacy of Wishes (2011) demonstrates how wishful thinking, however pleasant, accomplishes little of practical value. When the viewer blows into a freestanding device that measures airspeed and pressure, the piece leaps to life with motorized fans, temporarily inflating sailcloth wind tubes that seem to magically amplify the viewer’s breath. However, the tubes are only animated and bright for the duration of the breath, rapidly becoming passive again. The slightly more stable Windbag (2010) is nonetheless subject to spectator’s whims: its volume varies according to how far it gets moved from its air source. “Ideally, each piece lives a sort of static life, until the viewer, either voluntarily or involuntarily, sets off its full potential,” says Benefiel. The works’ direct response to their environment, while humorous and anthropomorphic, defies the concept of a remote, self-contained and self-referencing work of art, its meaning and form supposedly unchanged by context. It furthers the challenge to the traditional boundaries between artwork and audience, sculpture and performance, and art and life.

Over the last few years, Benefiel seems to have settled on a scale that is oriented to the human body without overwhelming it. In a passage that can be applied to Benefiel’s sculptures, minimalist artist Robert Morris writes, “An object has a lot to do with [the spectator’s body] because it was made by a body.”2 An important aspect of Benefiel’s works is the connection between maker and viewer, who is made aware of the labor-intensive process of the sculptures’ creation. Their scale is imposing enough to have a significant presence without becoming so large as to obscure the artist’s presence and effort. The enigmatically titled One and the Other (2010) consists of a steel nest that cradles and encases an inflatable Dacron balloon, like a rib cage protecting lungs. The low-grade steel rebars, suggestive of heavy industry, induce a visceral reaction both because of their tactile nature and the potential harm of the protruding, if rounded, wires. The work is a collection of extreme opposites, possibly alluded to by its title, that instill it with the aesthetic and thematic tensions of density and lightness, rigidity and softness, and rawness and refinement. The vaguely threatening shell masks the vulnerability that often lies behind aggressive defenses. As with many of Benefiel’s works, its scale exists between the domestic and the monumental.

Sensitivity to and respect for the environment are at the core of Benefiel’s work. “Sustainability for me is not something people should become interested in; I feel that it is something I strive for in the same way I strive for morality, or frugality, or virtue,”3 he writes. During his time as a Fulbright fellow at the Finnish Academy of Fine Art in Helsinki, he researched, designed, and developed an environmentally sound sculpture foundry. He continues, “As a sculptor, I felt that there is a certain level of unavoidable consumption and waste in my studio practice, and offsetting that through a concentrated effort in other areas is what I am obligated to do in [the pursuit of sustainability].”4 His primary materials are rediscovered and repurposed industrial cast-offs. By reclaiming and re-contextualizing leftover building materials, his work finds aesthetic and tactile value in waste material, transforming it through his sculptural process and imbuing it with new worth.

With the contemporary prevalence of cheap goods, craft has become commoditized, leading to an erosion of quality and value. The objects that typically surround us at work and at home, which in past centuries were painstakingly crafted, are now made by machine at a fraction of the cost. This artificial devaluing of consumer goods, while potentially a boon to many people who may not have afforded such luxuries at an earlier time, lulls buyers into a state of thoughtless consumption and hides the true cost of mass-production to both the environment and human creativity. In Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, Ellen Ruppel Shell writes,

In the world of Cheap, “design” has become a stand-in for quality. The genius of IKEA and other cheap-chic purveyors is that they have made fashionable, desirable, and even lovable objects nearly devoid of craftsmanship. The environmental and social implications of this are insidious and alarming.5

While choosing a piece of furniture “was once a serious decision, because of the expectation that it was permanent,”6 the disposable, ephemeral interiors of contemporary life make self-invention cheap and temporary. By the mid-twentieth-century, commoditization and mass-fabrication of objects extended into the realm of art, both figuratively with Andy Warhol’s “factory,” and literally in the industrially fabricated works of Donald Judd and other minimalist artists.

By contrast, Benefiel’s works—with their labor-intensive process and individual, handmade nature—signal a return to handicraft, durability, a subjective model of authorship, and thoughtful rather than thoughtless consumption. They counter machine-made coolness with human-made warmth. The joy of building them overrides the importance of the final product. This perceived emphasis on process is not self-conscious, but simply a result of Benefiel’s “obsession with making.” He explains, “I am the person fabricating and creating the work, and advertise that in the exhibition, and see no reason to hide or disguise my methods.”7 His works are guided by the inherent properties of their materials, their forms often developing organically from the state in which the raw ingredients were found. They are altered by subtle intervention rather than forceful transformation.

Benefiel’s inexpensive materials, while foremost a practical way to reduce the environmental impact of his practice, also dispute the concept of the invaluable work of art. His works offer fresh challenges to art’s enduring dichotomies of artist and audience, performer and spectator, and art and life. Like many minimalist and conceptual works, they present themselves on the floor of the gallery without pedestal or display case, questioning the existence of a separate realm for art. While they broach important cultural and institutionalized views about art and sustainability, they do so in a playful, experiential, and non-critical way. They are an invitation—rather than a plea—to find value where others do not, to connect with the materials we use and the makers of the objects we buy, and to re-examine our habits of consumption.

-Amara Craighill

1 Artist statement courtesy of Hamiltonian Gallery, Washington DC.
2 Robert Morris quoted in James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties [Yale University Press, New Haven,
2001], 116.
3 Statement courtesy of the artist.
4 Ibid.
5 Ellen Ruppel Shell, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture [Penguin Press, New York, 2009], 4.
6 Lauren Collins, “House Perfect,” The New Yorker, October 3, 2011: 56.
7 Statement courtesy of the artist.

Amara Craighill graduated from Columbia University with a masters in art criticism, where she focused on post-war and contemporary art. She has worked for the Whitney Museum in New York, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, and Hang Art Gallery in San Francisco. She is currently a freelance writer, most recently creating catalogues for the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies collections. She will be joining Virginia Commonwealth University as an adjunct faculty member in January, 2012.

ext. 1708 is an on-line journal funded through a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which also supports 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions. 1708 Gallery’s mission is to promote new art, a mission achieved via a rotating schedule of exhibitions that presents a diverse range of projects. In relation, 1708 Gallery strives to educate the public about Contemporary art and employs artist talks and didactic text panels to illustrate the exhibiting artist’s issues, themes, and modes of working. In an effort to further expand opportunities for education, this journal features essays, interviews and other writings that provide context for 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions and promote further dialogue about contemporary art. 1708 Gallery works with a range of writers, from graduate students to professional writers, to allow for multiple voices and experiences to contribute to this project.

IMAGE CREDITS (top to bottom, left to right): Christian Benefiel, Hatchet Job (detail), 2009, photo by Kathleen Jones; Christian Benefiel, Hatchet Job (installation view), 2011, photo by Jolene Giandomenico; Christian Benefiel, Windbag (detail), 2010, photo by Kathleen Jones; Christian Benefiel, One and the Other One (detail), 2010, photo by Kathleen Jones; Christian Benefiel,The Efficacy of Wishing (installation view), 2011, photo by Jolene Giandomenico; Christian Benefiel,The Efficacy of Wishing (detail), 2011, photo by Kathleen Jones; Christian Benefiel, Inaction in Action (detail), 2011, photo by Kathleen Jones; Christian Benefiel, Inaction in Action (installation view), 2011, photo by Jolene Giandomenico
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