Today, when so many paintings seem like simulacra mimicking endlessly retreaded styles from bygone eras, it is nice to see a work that breaks new ground. Strange Muses I (2017) is remarkable on multiple levels. It was created not to show the here and now, but to take us into what could best be described as a liminal space, a place that exists between two worlds. It also bridges the mechanically reproduced with the painterly. This is a work that requires a slow take, where the interior world of the psyche is mirrored in a multilayered and multi-processed practice. The painting’s masked figure holds a second transparent mask—this adds dimensionality and amplifies the classical, Latinate meaning of the persona as a theatrical mask. In Jungian psychology, the term persona means a mediating “public” face, which shields the inner personality. The transparent masks add another a psychological dimension, allowing the viewer to feel they are going behind the masks and are entering the psyche of the figure.
On ViewCallicoon Fine Arts
November 3 – December 22, 2017
Benjamin Kress, Strange Muses I, 2017. Oil on linen, 56 x 42 inches. Courtesy the artist and Callicoon Fine Arts. Photo: Sean Fader.
Benjamin Kress first sculpted and cast a polyurethane mask with semi-anonymous features and photographed himself wearing the mask, producing a figure with an implied androgyny. The artist then used this photographic image to make a cutout paper doll, lit it in a black architectural surround, and re-photographed it through a lenticular lens. The result of this process is a paper mannequin with twists and turns, seated in what could best be described as projected space.
The structures of early projection spaces like Athanasius Kircher’s “magic lanterns” come to mind. The cutout figure is suspended in a space between a lens, a light source, and viewer, and is bathed in a prismatic rainbow of light. This rainbow is also visible on the edges of the corner in the black space behind the figure. Seeing the figure, one is reminded of the phantasmagoria that floated above the audience in darkened rooms in the age of lantern slides and Pepper’s Ghost. Since Cubism, transparency has been a painterly phenomenon—the viewer has been able to both travel around the figure and some cases pass through it. Jean Gebser describes this development as a manifestation of the aperspectival, a shift into a new mode of perception where the viewer’s gaze passes through the form as one might pass through an apparition. We experience this phenomena in Strange Muses I. Because the artist uses his own body as a reference, this transparency is also a commentary on the Self, the transpersonal part of the personality that extends beyond the limits of the ego. Gebser describes this Diaphaneity as a new mutation of consciousness. The artist has created a place of interiority in a world where the inner life and psyche have been dismissed by an art world that is consumed by critical theory and politics, and where the concept of the soul has long been relegated to the dustbin.
In Strange Muses I, the figure as a veil-like apparition is reinforced with a prismatic luminism employed by Hudson River School painters like Frederic Church; the aura surrounding the figure, although a product of the lenticular lens, takes us into the transcendental world of the Hudson River School painters. Benjamin Kress is a hermetic painter whose works are created slowly, using many layers of smoothed grounds and transparent glazes. The final result is a complex meditation coming to us from a liminal realm, where the interior world of the artist meets the viewer. If this work is a sign of things to come, Benjamin Kress is someone to watch.
ANN MCCOY is an artist and writer who lectures in the Yale School of Drama.