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Lynda Benglis was responsible for some of the most important images in the art of the late 20th century. Her provocative photographic spread in Artforum in 1974, for one, of the artist nude with sunglasses and double-headed dildo, polarized the editorial staff and sent the magazine into an ideological spin-out. Even more important to current practice is her auto-erotic video Now (1973), of the artist making-out with several projected versions of herself, while shouting a set of disorienting instructions: 'Now? Now! Do you wish to direct me? Now? Start recording! Now? MMMM! NNNGH!' It was this video that inspired Rosalind Krauss' landmark essay 'Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism' (1976) and laid the groundwork for practices emerging from the feminist Punk underground in the late 1990s, including the multiple personalities of Tracy and the Plastics and the interactive cinema of Miranda July. Less provocative, but equally remarkable, are the photographs that documented Benglis' working process in the mid-1970s, pictures that can be compared in intensity to Gianfranco Gorgoni's images of Richard Serra throwing lead or Hans Namuth's depiction of Pollock scattering paint. They reveal an artist in the suspense of an improvisatory practice, standing over a glistening, alien terrain of plastic and poured latex; they deserve pride of place in any history of process-oriented abstraction.

Cheim and Reid's précis of Benglis' career focuses solely on her sculptural work, which is appropriate enough: abstract sculpture, in various media, has been at the centre of her concerns for nearly 40 years. Her approach to abstraction maintains a tension between process and finished object, with each work doubling as sculpture and as a record of its making. She often demystifies the moment of creation by giving evidence of the elemental procedures that generated the work: tying, pouring, dripping, casting. The result of these basic procedures often takes on the tone of bodily excretion: dried puddles of fluid, cupcakes of crystallized ear wax, knots of organs, the surface of skin. Quartered Meteor (1969), a dense corner piece of cast lead, splits the difference between molten asteroid and a glistening pile of shit; Come (1969-74) teases the viewer to see anything but bronzed spunk. It's a practice that means both to mimic the human body and to mock it, to provoke and challenge our persistent urge to anthropomorphize. Come, no matter how crass its reference, is hard, cast metal: it's an artwork as intent on defying its viscosity as it is on representing it in gooey anti-form.

This tension is often dependent on medium. A few works tip the balance too far, particularly the glazed ceramics and the sculptures made with gold leaf; works such as Bolero (1991-2) are over-intent on classicizing their aquatic forms, on making their mutant biologies look precious. Even here, though, Benglis is influential: Chicago Caryatid #4 (1979), with its conflation of feminized form and architectonic abstraction, could be the mysterious centrepiece of a Matthew Barney installation. The comparison is apt: Benglis, like Barney and unlike her Process-art contemporaries, loves to elevate her polymorphously perverse abstractions to quasi-mythological status, while even the most expensive-looking works carry an undertow of the bodily uncanny. Bolero doubles as a gilded orifice, Hot Spot (2001) as a crystalline booger. This fetishistic character separates her concerns from artists such as Eva Hesse or Serra, whose impulse was always to demystify production, and suggests one reason why Benglis has been somewhat marginalized in the nostalgic fascination with Post-minimalist art.

This exhibition, suggestive as it is, avoids two crucial problematics in Benglis' oeuvre: the extent to which the artist's work once conflated sculpture and performance, and the schism that separates her immensely important video work from her supposed 'real' work. To present her as a sculptor alone is to miss what made her work so radical in the early 1970s: the productive discourse on narcissism, erotica, feminism, authority and 'the body' that ricocheted between her video works and her sculptural production. The current exhibition posits her as a grande dame of mannerist Post-minimalism, or, in Baudelaire's words, 'the first in the decrepitude of (her) art'. However great the individual works are, the retrospective is not up to answering the questions her work once posed. In 1998 Cheim and Reid showed Benglis' consummately strange video Female Sensibility (1973) with several of the works included in the current exhibition, a curatorial gesture that baffled some, which may be why it was abandoned for this retrospective. Too bad: it's a relation that needs to be insisted on in the future.

Julian Myers is an art historian based in San Francisco. He is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts.

Issue 84

First published in Issue 84

Jun - Aug 2004
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