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Two Takes on Paul Stephen Benjamin’s “Pure Black” at MOCA GA

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Installation shot of Pure, New, and Very. Paul Stephen Benjamin, 2017.
Paul Stephen Benjamin, (l to r) Pure, New, and Very.

BY GREG HEAD

It takes older eyes a few minutes to adjust to the dimly lit gallery. After squinting and blinking, adjusting to the sparkles emanating from the floor and the purple hues cast by the large black light piece on the back wall, the rest of the cavernous space comes into view. In this show of seven large-scale works, Paul Stephen Benjamin has created a panoply of hefty works that continue the dialogue about the color black and blackness that he first shared publicly nearly five years ago, during his MFA thesis show at Georgia State University’s Welch Galleries. His new work challenges viewers to detach themselves from preconceived notions, experiences and encounters in order to think more deeply about blackness and the multilayered meaning that Benjamin attaches to the color and the social construct.

With this show, as in all of his works, Benjamin furtively plants clues and encodes his pieces with allusion and veiled meanings. On one hand, he wants viewers to work for it, to apply their own perspectives and investigative skills to draw their own conclusions. On the other hand, Benjamin works hard not to be seen as an artist who “gives it up” so easily. He wants his work to be taken seriously in this new age of post-blackness. Post-blackness, as author Michael Eric Dyson states, “doesn’t signify the end of blackness; it points, instead, to the end of the reign of a narrow, single notion of blackness. It doesn’t mean we’re over blackness; it means we’re over our narrow understanding of what blackness means.” While his work over the past five years has focused on blackness, Benjamin refutes the notion that he is a black artist who makes “black art.”

Detail of Paul Stephen Benjamin's FLOW
Detail of Paul Stephen Benjamin’s FLOW.

Benjamin’s continuous experimentation with and examination of the color black is not unique. Such renowned artists as Kazimir Malevich, Sam Gilliam, Kerry James Marshall, and Raymond Saunders have effectively used the color black in a variety of aesthetic and conceptual ways. Akin to Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, several of Benjamin’s works are visually challenging. They take a while to come into focus. FLOW, a 3-by-4 grid of 36-by-48-inch nearly all-black photographs requires the viewer to physically stop and stare. As rods and cones adjust to the low light levels, portraits of black males seem to emerge from the photos’ backgrounds. Benjamin has identified himself, his son, a relative, his studio assistant and himself in some of the images, but no further clues are given. Their meaning is ambiguous. Does the artist feel like he is finally emerging from the dark having been locally and nationally recognized? Or are men of color still barely seen in an unenlightened, regressive society?

Certainly the American black artist is in a unique position to express certain aspects of the current American scene, both negative and positive, but if he restricts himself to these alone, he may risk becoming a mere cypher, a walking protest, a politically described stereotype, negating his own mystery, and allowing himself to be shuffled off into an arid overall mystique.

– Raymond Saunders, “Black is a Color”

Perennial Properties

Opposite the wall of photographs are three large, 7-by-9-foot canvases, each created with a different shade of black house paint. From a distance, the paintings look as if they are color studies. Up close, from certain angles, the words pure, very, and new (also the titles of the three works) are visible in the thick application of paint on canvas. Each word is a reference to the commercial name of the paint (Behr Pure Black 8620, Valspar Very Black 5011-2, and Valspar New Black 4011-1) used to create that particular canvas. While Benjamin makes works that are aesthetically rich and compelling, he also uses the color black as a signifier, nimbly exploring deep socio-political, cultural and personal narratives.

Benjamin’s works are a bit like good suspense novels. They are cheekily encoded with “context clues.” His titles tend to be obvious entry points to the narratives that he is exploring. Ceiling, 14th Amendment, Paint the White House Black, God Bless the Martyrs are all loaded.

Ceiling, an installation of loose, broken, tempered glass, several inches deep, arranged on the floor in a 16-by-24-foot rectangle in the middle of the gallery, is simultaneously brash and subtle. After matching the installation with the title, Ceiling’s meaning becomes clear. In his artist talk, Benjamin said, “The glass ceiling has different meanings for different people…Whether there are barriers set before you by others or whether you’ve put them there yourself, you have to break through them.” In this instance, reference to the work seems autobiographical – a reference to the invisible institutional barriers that continue to prevent many talented black artists from being recognized within the larger canon of American art.

Paul Stephen Benjamin, Flow
Paul Stephen Benjamin, Flow, video, 2017.

Perhaps the most demanding work in the show is a silent 3-minute video titled Flow (oddly, the same title as the photo installation). It feels inspired by the early work of 2017 Guggenheim fellow Jefferson Pinder, whose videos deal with identity and stereotypes. Flow consists of two monitors, each showing a young man emotionlessly staring directly at the viewer. There are similarities between these men. Both have large rounded noses, beards and somewhat receding hairlines. They seem similar in age. One is black and the other apparently white. Staring makes people uncomfortable. Black men have been lynched for “staring” at white women. With this work, Benjamin seems to be asking us to think about our own preconceived notions and personal biases based on what we see as the men stare at us. Are we more drawn to one than the other? The irony is that both could be black. Unfortunately, with all the other compelling work in the show, viewers may not have the patience to parse this video’s meaning.

Benjamin’s work is best viewed at a leisurely pace, and might be categorized as part of the “Slow Art Movement.” It’s work that requires time to savor. If going deep is your thing, his work is best enjoyed with a bold cabernet or a large, hot cup of your favorite dark roast.

Greg Head is an Atlanta-based writer and cultural anthropologist. He is also managing partner at SmartThink Marketing Group, a research and marketing strategy consultancy, and a BURNAWAY board member.


Installation shot of Ceiling, Paul Stephen Benjamin. 2017.
Paul Stephen Benjamin. Installation view showing Ceiling in the foreground, tempered glass, 16 by 24 feet, at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia.

 

BY JORDAN AMIRKHANI

Paul Stephen Benjamin’s current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, “Pure Black,” presents a wide variety of this prolific artist’s paintings, sculpture, video and photography, all made within the last year. The outcome of a Working Artist Project fellowship awarded yearly to an emerging or mid-career Atlanta-based artist by the institution, this generous opportunity provides the selected artist with the time, money, and administrative support to produce a solo exhibition. In every way, Benjamin rose to the occasion, encouraging reflections upon the aesthetic and sociopolitical relationships between form, medium, and color—issues that have occupied this artist’s practice for a number of years.

The title of the exhibition refers to Benjamin’s exploration of a series of commercial paint shades—Valspar’s Very Black, New Black, and Behr’s Pure Black and Totally Black—applied individually in thick velvety layers to a series of large paintings. While the luxurious surfaces, tonal differences, and inky characteristics of these colors weigh vibrant and dense on the surfaces of Benjamin’s paintings, there lies hovering a constellation of complicated questions related to the artist’s use of color and society’s representation of race. The expression of these shades as “totally,” “new,” and “pure” black (as unique a marketing decision as I have ever seen!) point to the externalization of color as both visual sensation and cultural construct, sensory experience and political category leveraged historically to keep power structures, inequalities, and imperialist forms of occupation alive. Circulating the gallery, it felt clear that Benjamin’s decision to make work with and about black in this fraught sociopolitical moment, where minority communities of all kind are struggling under this administration and racial and ethnic tensions between communities of color and (state) power are at all-time highs, was one of urgent necessity.

While each work in the exhibition is strong, and the relationships between different media and their unique qualities are amplified by Benjamin’s charged choices, two works stand out for the timeliness of their aesthetic, conceptual, and political resonance. The most spectacular and seductive of Benjamin’s work in this presentation is Ceiling, a large 16-by-24-foot rectangle made of crushed tempered glass spread evenly on the floor in the center of the gallery, shards big and small sparkling under the warm lights.

The image is a potent reference to the “shattered ceiling” metaphor, used for the first time by Marylin Loden in 1978 at a Women’s Action Alliance panel on women in the workplace to express the invisible barriers that keep a particular minority population (in this case, women) from advancing and obtaining leadership roles in the workplace. Benjamin’s work neatly represents the aftermath of a shattered ceiling. Exactly what has caused the ceiling to break is ominous, as are the thousands of pieces of sharp glass that shine in a thick, surreal configuration, exaggerating the harm and violence inherent in broken glass, as well as the struggles and fights that lead to the shattering of social, political, and personal oppressions of all kinds.

The limits of professional progression for women in the workplace took an extremely visible form during the 2016 presidential election; the evening of Hilary Clinton’s loss, she invoked the metaphor to speak to her grieving supporters and women of all ages, “Now, I—I know—I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling … but never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance.” While the election is over, the consequences of Trump’s leadership has ignited an uncontrollable wave of administrative, cultural, and social disasters unseen in modern history, with abuse and violence towards women and minorities at the core of these tragedies.

While the glass has indeed shattered in some ways, the fight continues as women demand equal rights and protections under the law for themselves, their families, and their bodies. Benjamin’s seductive gesture points to the difficult terrain and obstacles ahead for women and minorities, and the shining promise and ominous outcomes inherent within the metaphor. While we could indeed connect Benjamin’s use of shiny, reflective materials to “black aesthetics” — think of mirrored Haitian flags, the rhinestones of Mickalene Thomas, and the illuminated effects of Kehinde Wiley’s and Ebony Patterson’s photographs — Benjamin’s works reify the intersectional discourses of race, ethnicity, class, and gender involved in the metaphor, and speak to the deep connections between those with power and those without.

!4th Amendment, Paul Stephen Benjamin
Paul Stephen Benjamin, 14th Amendment, 2017; black light, at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia.

Glowing and humming in bright, electric purple on the back wall of the gallery is Benjamin’s sculptural installation 14th Amendment — seven rows of horizontally staggered black light rods fitted into an oblong diamond shape, their black cords dangling in precarious swags and knots across the expanse of the piece, pooling into black coils on the floor of the gallery, and finally extending across the corner of the gallery towards the electrical socket across the room. Benjamin’s incorporation of outdated technological equipment in his work along with the clunky external accessories and bulky devices necessary to make them work has long been a significant feature he employs, forcing a consideration of the hardware, the messiness of their complicated attachments to wall and to one another, and the infrastructures that render light and sound possible.

Benjamin’s intention to make visible the internal logics of systems that produce sensual and visual data is a deeply politicized gesture, and becomes so most powerfully in the artist’s subversion of the art historical experience of “illumination” through a work of art. By choosing an ultraviolet light source that is often used to kill insects or gather forensic data, Benjamin destabilizes the miraculous, sublime experience of contemplating a work of art. The title of the piece, a reference to the 1868 Reconstruction Era amendment to ensure the rights of citizenship, due process, and equal protection under the law to former slaves, asks the viewer to make the connection between the haunting invasiveness of the violet-lighted work and the fraught historical trajectory of this legislation in the United States. While originally an amendment written to guarantee equal rights, the legacy of that language continues to be contested today, most recently in the fight for birthright citizenship to children of immigrant parents, gerrymandering in communities with high minority populations, and equal protection and access under the law for healthcare and contraception. Much like Ceiling, Benjamin’s 14th Amendment is not just an engagement with black identity politics but an attendance to the various and co-dependent social injustices inflicted by those with power towards those without it. The intersectionality at the heart of Benjamin’s work makes it some of the most potent art being produced in this region.

Jordan Amirkhani is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. In addition to her academic work, she serves as a regular contributor and art critic to many national arts publications, namely, the San Francisco-based contemporary art forum Daily Serving.