Black Lives Matter. We stand in solidarity with those affected by generations of structural violence. You can help »

The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues
SEPT 2020 Issue
ArtSeen

Scott Benzel: Mindless Pleasures

On View
BEL AMI
Mindless Pleasures
August 1 – September 26, 2020
Los Angeles
Scott Benzel, <em>California Split / La Fourchette du Cavalier</em>, 2020. Modified Artemide lamp, modified lamp by unknown Italian designer, oscilloscope, analog electronic circuits based on the equations of Hermann Minkowski and Edward Lorenz, modified ‘California Split’ film poster, Minkowski spacetime diagram, Poincaré diagrams from 'New Methods of Celestial Mechanics,' chicken wire, circuits by AST, dimensions variable. Courtesy Bel Ami, Los Angeles.
Scott Benzel, California Split / La Fourchette du Cavalier, 2020. Modified Artemide lamp, modified lamp by unknown Italian designer, oscilloscope, analog electronic circuits based on the equations of Hermann Minkowski and Edward Lorenz, modified ‘California Split’ film poster, Minkowski spacetime diagram, Poincaré diagrams from 'New Methods of Celestial Mechanics,' chicken wire, circuits by AST, dimensions variable. Courtesy Bel Ami, Los Angeles.

 At the end of the 19th century, the mathematician and polymath Henri Poincaré observed that though the route taken by (for example) a casino's roulette ball might seem haphazard, it is actually determined, and its flight can be fathomed if we know its initial position and the physical laws to which it submits. This data helps divine the “butterfly effects” that the roulette ball will be buffeted by, but without that information, the ball's unfolding trajectory looks shambolic. Poincaré's revelation seeded contemporary chaos theory, and, as it happens, proves deeply instructive a century later, when infectious disease modelers engage it to predict COVID-19 outcomes. 

Scott Benzel's new show at LA's Bel Ami gallery, Mindless Pleasures, gives viewers an important opportunity to contemplate the mysteries of deterministic chaos during this period of human history. In a tour de force that makes specific reference to Poincaré, other chaos theorists such as Edward Lorenz, and artists like Lee Lozano, Benzel assembles a wunderkabinett of games of chance, oscilloscopes, divinatory objects, and gelatin silver prints of Vegas hotspots. The resulting effect makes Bel Ami's white cube resemble a gambling den designed by a mad scientist bent on solving the problem of cosmic mayhem. In California Split/La Fourchette du Cavalier (2020), Benzel, who hails from Las Vegas, creates an assemblage made out of an oscilloscope (a sort of TV set that displays patterns created by electric currents) reflecting a beautiful blue light show. This spectacle is produced via circuits set to Lorenz’s famous “owl face” equation, a piece of mathematical ingenuity whose intricacy escapes this reviewer but that somehow expresses the chaos created by spontaneous breakdowns that occur in the physical world.  

Scott Benzel, <em>Hybrid Monte Carlo</em>, 2020. Regulation roulette wheel, regulation ‘pin,’ contact mic, motion detector, oscilloscopes, analog electronic circuits based on the equations of Henri Poincaré and Edward Lorenz (top: Lorenz ‘Owl Face,’ middle: Poincaré diagram, bottom: Poincaré-derived RC ‘chaos ladder’), circuits by AST, 73 x 20 x 41 inches. Courtesy Bel Ami, Los Angeles.
Scott Benzel, Hybrid Monte Carlo, 2020. Regulation roulette wheel, regulation ‘pin,’ contact mic, motion detector, oscilloscopes, analog electronic circuits based on the equations of Henri Poincaré and Edward Lorenz (top: Lorenz ‘Owl Face,’ middle: Poincaré diagram, bottom: Poincaré-derived RC ‘chaos ladder’), circuits by AST, 73 x 20 x 41 inches. Courtesy Bel Ami, Los Angeles.

In Hybrid Monte Carlo (2020), Benzel offers us an honest-to-god roulette wheel. It comes complete with a little ball that you can throw while being tutored in the higher implications of roulette by Bel Ami's erudite director and co-curator Lee Foley. The wheel is plugged into another series of oscilloscopes, which are each pegged to different mathematical equations devised by the likes of Lorenz, et al. The ball tick-tack-ticks through the wheel's frets, and its impacts are fed through the equations, making kinetic blue portraits appear on the oscilloscopes’ screens. The player watches this strange art while feeling that the enterprise is “totally random” but at the same time follows some inchoate code. 

Scott Benzel, <em>Luxor, Las Vegas</em>, 2020. Gelatin silver print, 22 x 26 inches. Courtesy Bel Ami, Los Angeles.
Scott Benzel, Luxor, Las Vegas, 2020. Gelatin silver print, 22 x 26 inches. Courtesy Bel Ami, Los Angeles.

A more straightforward engagement is had with a viewing of three silver gelatin prints that Benzel took at Vegas's lavish Luxor casino while out carousing with his friends. Luxor, Las Vegas (2020) shows three flashes of light ascending over an illuminated outline of the Luxor's copycat Pyramids of Giza architecture. The picture resembles both an outtake from Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977) as well as an abstract illustration of the “three body problem” (the quandary of figuring out the flight paths of three or more celestial bodies that yield to Newton’s laws of motion and gravity), but can also be read as a cool image of flash bulbs glittering like stars in a darkened parking lot. Pylon (2020) is a snapshot of an ancient-looking temple that is actually a crassly modern mock-up of Egyptian relics that forms part of the Luxor's superfaux decor, and this image, along with Luxor, Las Vegas, leaves an aftertaste of apprehension about the deeper meanings of chaos in the context of American imperialism.  

Scott Benzel, <em>Mindless Pleasures (‘Shuffled my mind, came up with a better hand’)</em>, 2020. Shelf with: Prehistoric insect preserved in Baltic amber circa 40 million BCE, lucky hand root (salep), Roman Janus head coin circa 30-40 BCE, Campo del Cielo meteorite fragment, modified cowrie shells, mandrake root, polished obsidian, Stardust Resort and Casino regulation casino playing card deck, Helmholz resonator, Klein bottle, modified Marcel Duchamp Rotoreliefs (Koenig edition), Janus head cartouches, glass, chicken wire, 6 x 78 x 6 inches. Courtesy Bel Ami, Los Angeles.
Scott Benzel, Mindless Pleasures (‘Shuffled my mind, came up with a better hand’), 2020. Shelf with: Prehistoric insect preserved in Baltic amber circa 40 million BCE, lucky hand root (salep), Roman Janus head coin circa 30-40 BCE, Campo del Cielo meteorite fragment, modified cowrie shells, mandrake root, polished obsidian, Stardust Resort and Casino regulation casino playing card deck, Helmholz resonator, Klein bottle, modified Marcel Duchamp Rotoreliefs (Koenig edition), Janus head cartouches, glass, chicken wire, 6 x 78 x 6 inches. Courtesy Bel Ami, Los Angeles.

Deepening this angst is Mindless Pleasures (‘Shuffled my mind, came up with a better hand’) (2020). This work’s title comes from a saying by artist-recusant Lee Lozano, who famously exited the art world for complex reasons that included her desire to destroy what she called “emotional habits.” Mindless Pleasures is a long, thin shelf covered with tiny objects that aid in divination in Roman, West African, Greek, and Aztec cultures—lucky hand roots (which appear to be falsely attributed to African-American spiritual and speculative traditions), a Janus head coin, cowrie shells, mandrake root, and a piece of obsidian. Benzel's turn to augury speaks to the feelings of powerlessness we experience during tumultuous changes of fortune, an anxiety expressed most recently by infection control expert Dr. Kent Sepkowitz, who called President Trump’s decision to shift certain aspects of COVID-19 data collection from the CDC to the Department of Health and Human Services an effort to sow “chaos for its own sake.” Benzel's show, with its difficult theories about the patterns that underlie pandemonium, makes us think about chaos that seems random but is determined, and is not just a theory, but also emerges from power and practice. 

Contributor

Yxta Maya Murray

Yxta Maya Murray is a writer and a law professor who lives in Los Angeles. Her novel, Art Is Everything, is forthcoming from TriQuarterly Books in February, and her book of short fiction, The World Doesn't Work That Way, but It Could, is now out from University of Nevada Press.

close

The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

All Issues