Writer Corinna Kirsch checks in from New York with a look at Louisiana's own Lynda Benglis and her latest work in ceramic.
Let’s say you walked into Cheim & Read last week and you didn’t know anything about Lynda Benglis. Here’s what you would have seen: dozens of small colorful, lopsided ceramic sculptures—ranging from the size of a cat to a carry-on suitcase—placed atop clean, minimal pedestals. Staggered about the gallery, this village of alien objects looked a little like squished, crushed, or rolled-up trash that—if you wanted to—you could cradle in your arms. They were unthreatening, haphazard feeling, and dare I say it, kind of cute.
Now, let’s say you knew a thing or two about Benglis. You’d have seen the same thing as anyone else, but you’d have come in with an entirely different set of expectations. Here is new work by the Lake Charles-born Benglis, known far-and-wide as a daring renegade who introduced sculpture in the 1960s that oozed, melted, or slithered across the gallery floor. With her menacing floor pieces, it’s as if some giant vomited or defecated in the middle of the gallery. And if her large sculptures don’t look like they came out of a body, then they’re a body part—Smile (1974) is a double-dildo with a grin. Needless to say, ever since her now infamous 1974 Artforum ad, Benglis has been known for her humor. If these are reasons why you like Benglis, it’s likely you’d be disappointed with the recent show.
I, however, was not disappointed. Sure, any sense of the grotesque has worn off in these newer ceramic works. But they show that Benglis is still a master of making sculptures that don’t look like anything else (or maybe everything all at once). One looks kind of like a gray boat with a mouth, another might be a miniature mattress plopped on its side. There’s one that could be a pink, crusted-over school globe. All in all, these descriptions only hint at what these objects are—they’re pretty much indescribable. (Add to that, they’re all titled UNTITLED, so Benglis refutes giving a name to any of these lopsided “thingies.”)
I’d argue that making unrecognizable, indescribable objects is what Benglis has been doing all along in her career—although she might not agree with me. In a 2009 interview with Phong Bui of The Brooklyn Rail, Benglis described how she’d moved on from her earlier work:
I think what I did, exploring the idea of the artist being a hermaphrodite that has both genitals and can ding and dance is essentially the idea of considering the vulnerability of sex along with art and is a very potent issue—one that didn’t continue to be a central theme of my work.
Perhaps she did diverge along the way from the slipperiness of gender, but I think she is back at it with this new crop of strange sculptures. They’re loosely defined, of this kind and that, and you can never quite tell what they are, or if you are even supposed to try.