Iconic buildings are signifiers for places: the Leaning Tower is Pisa in the same way that the Eiffel Tower is Paris and the Taj Mahal is India. Like flags, landmarks stand alone, always depicted detached from their context; they’re perfect for stamps, those remote ancestors of thumbnail images on which the marvels of tourism have been reproduced for centuries and circulated among friends and relatives. ‘Bonjour Tourist’, Will Benedict’s first solo show at Giò Marconi, paid whimsical homage to the faded glories of philately, the Grand Tour and social networking. His paintings – including Pisa, The Taj Mahal, The Rock of Gibraltar and Paris (all works 2012) – echo the subjects and rectangular format of postcards, stamps included. Sometimes, Benedict’s paintings even portray actual postcards, with scribbled notes and addresses, and ironic titles such as: Lucie, see you when I see you, Lucie, dream of stone and Josefin, read that bitch.
Thankfully, the artist’s interest in semiotics is subtler: while exploring ready-to-consume, ‘picture-perfect’ images such as stock photos, Benedict confuses the usual distinctions between frame and picture, hand painting and mechanical reproduction. In so doing, he connects with our new ways of seeing – after all, web browsers now allow us to search images not only by keyword (content), but also directly by images (form), effacing hierarchies between origins, versions and authors of a sign. Benedict’s technique is, by itself, a tribute to the mise-en-abîme. First, the artist paints abstract patterns in gouache on ordinary foamcore panels. Then, he removes a rectangular portion of the panel and inlays in it a painted canvas, which often depicts the surreal map of a country (Orange China, Corporate Italian Twilight and Mexican Twilight). Sometimes, he also asks friends and models to pose in front of the painted panels: he photographs them alone or in couples, seated behind a table or office desk whose shiny surface reflects the paintings. Benedict then prints the photographs life-size, cuts out the figures and glues them to the original foamcore panel. Seen from afar, the different supports and techniques are hard to distinguish, although Benedict does little to hide his labour-intensive process, which straddles hi-tech collage and DIY Photoshopping. Quite the contrary, in fact: here he displayed the photographic maquettes alongside the paintings Bonjour Tourist (Lucie and Markus) and Bonjour Tourist (Lucie and Markus Yellow Model).
The exhibition unfolded as a sequence of odd, multi-layered conversation pieces, sentimental landscapes and a few flag-like abstract compositions. Benedict invited Lucy Dodd to exhibit her sculpture Piano Pond Pipe (2010) – a piano pierced by a thin copper pipe and a small hookah-like burner. During the opening, a pianist played it while she smoked and struck poses, all of which added to the overall atmosphere of daydreaming and voyages around the room.
Benedict’s smaller, inlaid paintings are the most compelling: they encourage free associations with stamps, posters, tablets, television or newsreader’s sets; landmark after landmark. They all have a much older equivalent: the window overlooking a landscape often found in the background of Renaissance paintings, after which our hypertexts still appear to be modelled.
First published in Issue 149