Benjamin Senior

Bruce Haines, Mayfair, London

A girl with bobbed, bubblegum-blue hair in cropped indigo denims serves a man a coffee on a wooden board. The man – auburn hair, beard, green suede desert boots – reads a newspaper. Behind them, a young black man in a two-tone baseball jacket opens a curlicued iron gate to walk his whippet. The scene is a study in urban (and urbane) normality. Archly titled La Rue (The Street, all works 2016), the piece, like the four further new paintings in the eponymous exhibition at Bruce Haines, Mayfair, is a highly stylized combination of contemporary cosmopolitism and slightly unfashionable painterly tradition: hipsters à la minor postimpressionist. Elsewhere, in Portals, a girl in turned-up shorts, whose cornrows meet in the depression between her shoulder blades, holds a hula-hoop. Behind her is a whorl of trees, autumnal-hued, and a park bench, the intricate ironwork of which glows absinthe-green where the sunlight hits it.

sherlock-900-1.jpg

Benjamin Senior, Charlotte Rd, 2016, egg tempera on cotton on plywood, 50 x 40 cm

Benjamin Senior, La Rue, 2016, egg tempera on cotton on plywood, 60 x 60 cm

Umbrellas recur in these works, which makes sense given that Senior is based in London. So, too, do dogs, which makes its own kind of sense, structurally, as they are mostly of a pleasingly statuesque kind – pompom-tailed poodles and willowy whippets. Unlike in the paintings of Balthus (whose languid atmosphere Senior’s work sometimes evokes) where cats suggest urges suppressed in the young girls they appear alongside, these dogs echo only their owner’s elegant elongation. In earlier works, Senior depicted bodies exercising – people practicing yoga postures in the park, swimmers diving, runners stretching – all engaged in a precise and rhythmic choreography of horizontals, verticals and obliques (legs raised parallel to the floor, straight backs, striped towels and swimming costumes). Gorgeous, those paintings unsettle because they’re so taut and clean, almost approaching a Leni Riefenstahl fetishization of physical form. (This often equates to an odd form of disinterest. As Edgar Degas once said to his dealer, Ambroise Vollard: ‘People call me the painter of dancing girls. It has never occurred to them that my chief interest in dancers lies in rendering movement and painting pretty clothes.’) The paintings imply the narcissism, too, of this pursuit of self-improvement. The figures are absolutely absorbed in their own activities, with every body perfectly toned and impeccably clad.

The works in ‘La Rue’ are more open to storytelling than Senior’s earlier paintings – more film still than still life. Yet, though they may at first appear less formally constrained, the compositions are, if anything, denser and more rigorous. In Charlotte Rd, for instance, the broad stripes on two umbrellas vie to direct the viewer’s eye with a man’s checked overcoat, the topiaried coat of a poodle, intricately rendered brickwork and mullioned windowpanes. It is testament to Senior’s compositional skill that the effect is not chaos but beautifully measured calm – the stasis achieved by different forces pulling in equal and opposite directions.

sherlock-900-2.jpg

Benjamin Senior, Market Row, 2016, egg tempera on cotton on plywood, 40 x 30 cm

Benjamin Senior, Market Row, 2016, egg tempera on cotton on plywood, 40 x 30 cm

That stillness is unsettling, too – odd, unnatural, as in the calm before the storm. (They are all carrying umbrellas, after all.) This strangeness is emphasized by the unconventional ‘worm’s-eye view’ from which the works are painted. Borrowed from Andrea Mantegna, this form of perspective captures a scene from the very lowest point. The heels of shoes become important, as do the bases of table legs; everything seems statuesque, every building monumental. But then, Senior doesn’t strive for realism; or, if he does, it’s that of a painter such as Graham Little – a composite of advertising image, film vignette and Harper’s Bazaar shoot: hazy, remembered or dreamed, familiarly non-specific. If Little paints the world as though through the dust of a 1950s powder puff, Senior is looking at it through the neon translucency of a boiled candy (recalled in the Haribo-coloured visors worn by some of his figures) – sweet, artificial, irresistible.

Lead image: Benjamin Senior, Charlotte Rd, 2016, egg tempera on cotton on plywood, 50 x 40 cm

Amy Sherlock is reviews editor of frieze and is based in London.

Issue 182

First published in Issue 182

October 2016

Most Read

Tate Modern, London
London’s fourth plinth artists announced; a new fund to protect cultural heritage in war-torn areas
Annika Eriksson, The Social, 2017, wallpaper and objects on a shelf, 500 x 450 cm. Courtesy: The artist and Moderna Museet, Malmö
 
Moderna Museet, Malmö, Sweden
Paul Scheerbart, Nusi-Pusi, 1912. Courtesy: Berlinische Galerie/Kai-Annett Becker
From a short history of plagiarism to Trisha Brown's walk: what to read this weekend
Q. What is art for? A. To tell us where we are.
The work of filmmaker James N. Kienitz Wilkins on the occasion of his inclusion in the 2017 Whitney Biennial film...
Trisha Brown has died, aged 80; two new appointments at London’s ICA; controversy at the Whitney
A round-up of the best shows to see in the city ahead of this week’s Art Basel Hong Kong
How should the artistic community respond when an art space, explicitly or implicitly, associates itself with right-...
Charlie Fox on a new translation of Hervé Guibert's chronicle of love, lust and drug-addled longing
Three highlights from the New York festival promoting emerging filmmakers
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA
A report and the highlights from a show themed around fluidity, flux, botany and the subterranean
From growing protests over the gentrification of Boyle Heights to Schimmel leaving Hauser & Wirth, the latest from...
kurimanzutto, Mexico City, Mexico
Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland
The body is a troubled thing ...
Sir Howard Hodgkin dies aged 84; finalists for Berlin’s Preis der Nationalgalerie 2017 announced

From the Women's Strike to a march that cancels itself out: what to read this weekend
The most interesting works in the IFFR’s Short Film section all grappled with questions of truth, honesty and...
With the reissue of their eponymous debut album, revisiting the career of legendary Berlin art project / punk band Die...
Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, Brazil 

Tramway, Glasgow, UK
A work by self-taught artist Martín Ramírez
Munich’s Haus der Kunst embroiled in Scientology scandal; Martín Ramírez to inaugurate the new ICA LA
If politics today obsesses over the policing of borders, art in France is enacting multiple crossings
A new video installation from Richard Mosse investigates the refugee crisis
Gustav Metzger has died aged 90; director of the Met resigns
What draws us to certain stories, and why do we retell them? 
It’s time that the extraordinary life and work of Anya Berger was acknowledged

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

Nov - Dec 2016

frieze magazine

Jan - Feb 2017

frieze magazine

March 2017