Still in her twenties with three solos under her belt, Trudy Benson has been garnering a lot of attention, and it’s easy to see why. Her raucously impastoed paintings, as luscious as they are jarring, are abstraction as sheer ebullience — ambrosia for anyone open to the innate pleasures of color, texture, line and shape.
I finally caught up with Benson’s work at Horton Gallery, where a show of paintings from 2012 and 2013 opened on April 25. I had missed her previous outings at Freight + Volume in 2010 and Mike Weiss in 2011, but judging from the online images of those shows (a dubious endeavor under any circumstances, but especially for a painter as tactile as Benson), there are substantial differences between the earlier work and what is currently at Horton.
In a video interview conducted by James Kalm at the Freight + Volume opening, Benson says that she had just finished — on that very day, in fact — the coursework for her Pratt MFA. The artist’s precocity is borne out on the gallery walls. With too many ideas colliding at once, her paintings, while looking remarkably assured, don’t quite add up to the sum of their parts.
The work at Horton, which is on the Lower East Side in the space formerly occupied by CANADA, is of a different order — equally inventive, but less likely to toss in the kitchen sink, at least not every time.
The vocabulary is whittled down to a set of painterly motifs that include ropelike squeezes and delicate squirts; shaped slabs evoking toy boats, earthquake fissures and celestial bodies; black and iridescent stripes; woozily sprayed-on lines; and belts of color transitioning stepwise in tonal bands, from coal-black to pale lemon-lime, bright cherry and penumbral raspberry-chocolate.
Looking at the tonal belts, I thought of Russell Tyler, an artist whose paintings had recently caught my eye at the Brian Morris Gallery, also on the Lower East Side. While just as energetic, Tyler’s work is more pared down, playing off the idea of a blank or malfunctioning TV or computer screen and frequently featuring effusively textured bands of gradated color.
Clicking around in search of information on Benson, I discovered that she and Tyler are married, a happenstance that turns a formal correlation into a personal conversation we are suddenly privy to.
It is a detail that is admittedly inconsequential if it were not a window into the appeal of Benson’s paintings, and Tyler’s for that matter, though his work feels somewhat more introspective. That is to say, the apparently unselfconscious give-and-take of the shared color gradations is a manifestation of what could be regarded, without irony, as a form of unfettered innocence.
If the paintings in Benson’s new show are more restrained than her earlier work, they still retain a let’s-try-this glee that embraces any number of ideas without bothering to parse their appropriateness or pedigree. Like Cordy Ryman and Baker Overstreet, two artists I’ve written about recently, Benson is a postmodernist who wields a trawl net, not a sheaf of footnotes.
Take her use of spray paint (in virtually every piece in the show, Benson runs the gamut of oil, acrylic, enamel and spray paint), which pushes spatial depth to a degree that flirts with the Abstract Illusionism of a painter like James Havard, but without crossing the line into kitsch.
I have no idea whether Benson is deliberately referencing that short-lived, readily discredited 1970s style — I tend to think not — but her offbeat spatial layering lies well outside the bounds of formalist taste. Ironically, these paintings succeed not so much on their cheeky transgressions, considerable though they are, but on the completeness with which they inhabit the world the artist has created.
Benson’s canny understanding of her medium allows her to work both ends against the middle, setting formalist stratagems into internecine conflict. Looking closely, we discover that the illusionistic elements aren’t illusions at all, but material-on-material interactions meeting at disconcerting junctures.
Spray paint clings to raw canvas and wood grain, sinking behind its more viscous cousins, oil and enamel paint, which may leach shallow haloes of oil but otherwise stay put on the artwork’s surface. The effect doesn’t fool the eye as much as focus attention on the way various materials do what they do.
In the large, stunning “Computer Painting” (2013), Benson kicks her spray-painted lines even further into the distance by pasting a second sheet of canvas, which covers the majority of the surface, over them. A cutout triangle extending to the midline of the work exposes them to view.
But she confounds the painting’s spatial logic by organizing the forms painted on the top layer of canvas — full-bodied elements that would ordinarily reside on the surface: a convex, black-to-yellow banded belt; an extended smear of pinkish-gray; a powder-blue crescent; a delicate, skittering string of light, peachy orange — as if they were drifting behind the cutout. The violated picture plane ends up as an extreme workout in push-pull that would probably send Hans Hofmann spinning in his grave.
Other works display similar feats of flamboyance and control, such as the metallic, off-white orb that freezes looping dreadlocks of black paint into a plaster-like relief in the beguiling “Fill With Color” (2012), while a few, like “Gates,” (also 2012), never quite jell. But occasional misfires are small potatoes compared to what Benson and other talented young painters are up to: grabbing an ancient art with both hands and, following the dictum of Ezra Pound’s “Canto 53,” making it new.