Whitney Museum of American Art, April 22 – September 20, 2009
Sadie Benning first shook up the art world as a slip of a grrrl at the Whitney Biennial in 1992. Her self-confidently personal yet visually alienated videos, made with a Fisher Price Pixelvision camera, advanced the political agendas of the decade while superseding their polemic through a quirky and personal storytelling style. After all, she was 19, an age when the only real terrain is the self.img1
Benning found a way to use the primitive pixelation of the child’s camera as an expressive device, a way of expanding the distance between a young woman’s sense of her inner world versus her outward reality. She used scrawled phrases held up to the camera as a way of both speaking and holding back speech; her cryptic statements give you only so much. Other times she staged puppet shows for the camera, the puppets drawn or painted on cardboard. The eccentrically rendered figures that frequently showed up were always in Benning’s own hand, a style both naïve and furious. Sometimes the soundtrack stopped with a pop before she speaks—a technique that has been lampooned on YouTube (a sign of Benning’s iconic status for film students). Her works, while determinedly feminist and queer, are always enigmatic. As in Marshall McLuhan’s definition of a cold medium, their elisions draw the viewer in.
In the late ’90s Benning carried her humor and political toughness into the band she formed with Kathleen Hanna, Le Tigre, which in spite of its punk roots and radical lyrics placed an emphasis on danceability and pissed-off fun. Benning left the band early on to pursue her video work, but her stamp remained on its smart mix of politicization and a kind of stark silliness. There is a sense of humor in Benning’s work that seems distinctly Midwestern; laconic and “flat,” like the faces of the personae of her signal feature-length film from 1998, Flat is Beautiful. In this dreamy, ravishing work, Benning adds an additional layer of distance even beyond the pixelation by having the actors wear crudely drawn masks. This brilliant device has the odd effect of making the 11-year-old heroine, Taylor, with her mask’s cock-eyed expression, seem more real, as if she is always emotionally exposed and close to the surface. In other words, the extra dimension of removal seems to cancel out the piece’s visual anomie and draw us into the preteen character’s inner world. There is always this interplay in Benning’s work, using intimacy as distance, and distance to draw the viewer in. In her videos, close-ups of her lips and eyes are disorienting because we never get the full view of her face. Shots of Taylor’s room in Flat is Beautiful do the same thing; personal spaces and objects seem distant and meaningless, while the element that breaks through the chunky haze, both aesthetically and emotionally, are the crudely drawn faces.
Benning’s 2007 two-channel video projection Play Pause, showing now through September at the Whitney, is in a very different spirit. Single shots of Benning’s gouache drawings are projected on two screens, the images changing continually, as in a slide show. The drawings are in the same childish, loopy, angry style as the masks and drawings from her early videos, but seem to be scenes from a visual journal, beginning in the morning and ending late at night. The first scenes are on a street, and the audio track is the sound of traffic, birds, etc. Later on we are in a metro, and later still a bar, with music and ambient noise. The piece ends in what appears to be an orgy, or else isolated sex scenes strung together. Many of Benning’s strengths are here; the resistance to easy legibility, the sense of internal form, and the ability to create a powerful mood; the mood, however is not exactly definable: diaristic; observational; somewhat banal. At times the piece feels satirical or even bitter in its depiction of meaningless social intercourse; other times, sweetly lyrical. I was never quite sure what was interesting about this bar, this street, these scenes of coitus. Even the orgy scenes feel like more of the same for both the players and the one documenting them, ostensibly Benning herself. There is nothing wrong with Play Pause, but coming after her earlier work, it seems merely respectable. Reaffirming her spot on the Whitney’s contemporary hit parade, Benning has made the full transition from riot grrrl to serious artist—an adult, distanced from her rage and confusion, able to hide herself in plain sight. Too bad for the rest of us.