Nicholas Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth is about an extraterrestrial named Thomas Newton who has come to Earth to collect water for his dying home planet. The exact details of how he is going to send the water back involve some sort of laser device, which he is going to invent and build. Of course his attempts to build the thing fail, and he ends up drunk and living with Candy Clark. Oh, yeah, the space alien is played by David Bowie. The plot really only starts to make any kind of sense about three-quarters into the picture when Bowie and Clark have sex. Awesome, mutant, wet, oozing, hardcore, interspecies fucking. Spews of white plasma, bodies morphing, colliding, and pretty much melting together. Fornicating in the liquid fabric of an alien firmament. All of this brings us to Lynda Benglis’s retrospective currently at the New Museum.
Since the late ‘60s, Benglis has been making objects and creating performance works that, nominally, were developing a feminist slant on Minimalist and Process art—nominally being the key word here. For although her work incorporated many of the basic tenants of the movement, there was always something inherently sexual permeating the very material nature of her pieces. Beginning with her early latex pour pieces, Fallen Paintings (1968), which removed the medium from the canvas and let it pool sensuously over the floor, to the more literal Smile (1974), a cast-lead double dildo that she famously posed with for an Artforum ad, these early works, as well as single-channel videos (Female Sensibility, 1973) and sets of Polaroids of her and her cohort Robert Morris, drew a fine line between the discipline of Minimalism and the discipline of Discipline.
Unlike her male peers, who were obsessed with boxes, tunnels, cages, and colossal Cor-Ten steel monoliths, Benglis focused on the inevitable entropy inherent in her materials. A crucial choice: she worked with metals, polyurethanes, latexes, etc., that is, media that begin as liquid and then harden. Critical to really understanding Benglis’s work is grasping how much the concept of stasis is involved. She froze the moment when something was fluid, organic, a pure potentiality, and then captured the latent tendencies of the matter when it had reached its potential. And stasis, indeed, is sexy. In an extended series of polyurethane, bronze, and aluminum pieces, she explored the making of monumental sculpture determined only by the limits of material. Even the titles suggest the erotic and sublime: Wing (1970, pictured above), Come (1969–74), and Eat Meat (1973).
Even at her weakest she manages to manipulate wax, cloth, and wire in ways that evoke a visceral feeling. The tableau Paula’s Props (1975), with its architectural columns, lead Jesus, and real and faux flora, suggests dungeon decor more than a Robert Kushner installation. To give the works the credit they are indeed due, it is instructive to compare them to the somewhat overblown theoretical works of Morris, whose incessant natterings-on about prisons and panopticons couched a similar penchant for an art of the physical. Even in her most recent series of black patina bronzes (Figure 2, Figure 5, Figure 6, 2009), Benglis elevates industrial spray insulation and wire to create forms that evoke the shapes of both countries and continents, as well as bullet-riddled flags, waving above the ashes. Haunting, given our political clime, yet their primeval sensibility suggests hope, eternal.
The masterpiece of the exhibit is the five-part work Phantom (1971), a phosphorescent foam series installed in a separate room. Torrents of glowing foam spill from the walls, like forensically black-light lit semen in trajectory. They evoke waterfalls, tendrils, ectoplasm, and above all, that space sex scene from The Man Who Fell to Earth. Sculpturally these pieces should stand alongside Michalengelo’s Dying Slaves, or Rodin’s Balzac, for icons of pure libido. Walking into the darkened room becomes an encounter for all the senses—the subtle change of light as the material loses its phosphorescence, the smell of the urethane, the disorienting light. They are complete amongst themselves, perfect forms; yet the viewer’s presence seems to activate them (even if it doesn’t, really). One question that is never really answered in the movie is why, with such a seemingly endless supply of space jism to cop in, did Bowie need to bring back all of that water from Earth? Oh, yeah, right.
The Lynda Benglis show is currently at the New Museum in New York through June 19, 2011.
Posted by Bradley Rubenstein