By Chelsea Hogue
Editor’s note: We were going to publish this review while Conor Backman, Trudy Benson and Russel Tyler’s exhibition was still on view at Restrospective Gallery. But it felt too special to publish in the moment. It felt more right to publish this review, which is more of an ode to the end of a season, on the very last day of Summer. A day of lament, a day to say goodbye to warm weather and long days, a day to welcome the early chill of autumn. A day to say goodbye to blue and hello to amber.
It’s the morning of August 15th and I tell myself that I’ll prepare to see Connor Backman, Trudy Benson, and Russell Tyler’s work at an opening at Retrospective Gallery in Hudson, NY that night; and I do, sort of. Interviews, scattered bios; that’s it.
I’m also reading Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s account of his first forays in underwater exploration, The Silent World, and finding it difficult to do much else, other than read this book, which taps into something that feels entrenched especially in this season: a yen for the odyssey.
It’s summer, although we’re running out of it quickly; and many of us had made plans, or had been asked, and so we had considered: what will you do? And now we’ve reached the juncture one inevitably comes to after making plans: did we do it, or did we not?
We wait all winter for the great voyage and discovery, a day much like the one on which Cousteau discovered his insatiable appetite for life in the sea:
Cousteau writes: “Sometimes we are lucky enough to know that our lives have been changed, to discard the old, embrace the new, and run headlong down an immutable course. It happened to me at Le Mourillon on that summer’s day, when my eyes were opened on the sea,” wrote the Presidential Medal of Freedom-winning, French naval officer, explorer, conservationist, filmmaker, scientist, photographer, and author in The Silent World.
He was, by his rendering, inexorably drawn to the ocean; it was the haptic sensation of goggles meeting face, face immersed in the underwater world, and then he could, finally, see. What is Cousteau—and of course, I’ll ask: what are WE—looking for precisely? Is it the extra in the ordinary?
he ocean is, and has always been, the perfect receptacle for the gussied up dreams we have for our vacations, our experiences, and ourselves. Always home to myth, and anthropomorphosized as the capricious and arbitrary female: the sea is, has always been, so terribly enigmatic.
This has been said several times, so I’ll only say it once: poetry is thriving; lots of people are making music using instruments; and painting isn’t dead. However, it isn’t for a lack of reason that we’re constantly asked to reconsider the vitality of painting. After all, it is appearances, which we’re taught to initially distrust; and all images are inherently political—making a sharp-knifed place for all of our inmost skepticism. So when the question is posed, with one finger on the pulse: is painting dead?—perhaps it’s better phrased: what is it that we’re looking for in the first place?
Could it be true that we often look to materials and art, searching for a conduit through which we may find alternative and extended experiences?
Click here to discover your PaSsIoN, we’re often told, In 7 Easy Steps! Unlike Delacroix, a master in discovering the uncanny in the common: “Give me the mud of the streets,” he beckoned, “and if you will leave me also with power to surround it to my taste, I will make of it a woman’s flesh of delicious tint.”
Every day after school, my mother sat on top of the kitchen table, eating BBQ chips, and watching Oprah on a small TV my father had drilled into the side of a kitchen cabinet. Always stuck, always waiting for the opportune moment to find an initiative, she and Oprah called it an Aha! Moment. This is the summer that I’m going to relax. Some days, cross-legged in front of the screen, she would take notes. This is the summer that I’m going to lose weight. And on others, moved by the stories of other revelations, she would cry. This is the summer that I’m going to find myself. And sometimes she would tell me to sit down and watch, too; there was something being said that day that she thought I needed to hear.
I think we do often look to art for alternative experiences; but that doesn’t seem to be, not to me, how it all works. Rather, it’s our present experience, which is protracted and, at best, augmented. As John Dewey stated in one of his lectures on the philosophy of art at Harvard University in 1931, collected as essays in the book, Art as Experience:
“The scope of a work of art is measured by the number and variety of elements coming from past experiences that are organically absorbed into the perception had here and now.”
“I recently rediscovered the ‘orange peel map’, the homolosine projection, and started thinking about the relationship of cartography to representational painting,” Conor Backman said in a conversation with New American Paintings, referencing his works containing orange peels, peeled all in one piece. “Both have always dealt with the problem of first translating the round into the flat.”
Homolosine projections are equal area maps of the world, which distort ocean areas in order to minimize the distortion of the continents. Developed in 1923, the disappearing oceans of homolosine projections feel, eerily, prescient, considering that the oceans are, in terms of marine life, disappearing. Our oceans, as we know them, will be radically different by some year that some scientists project will be near 2035; the world is currently experiencing an expansion of marine dead zones because oxygen levels have become so low that life cannot survive.
The best-known dead zone is in the Gulf of Mexico; it’s about the size of Connecticut.
Backman’s preoccupation with translation and representation in cartography, and how this is conceptualized in painting feels like a finger on the right spot, one of a present pain: the fading pulse.
Scanning images from old shows and a couple of articles, here’s what I know of Trudy Benson’s paintings, pre-Retrospective show, according to the Internet: An engagement with density; big canvases with textural agility; the carpet in the Portland Airport; programmed painterly strokes; 80s sport aesthetics explodes and some of its juices are ingested by clip art; and these mixed up modes are subsumed by some German (likely), Abstract Expressionist (definitely). There’s a friction in Trudy Benson’s work and it’s formalism abutting the neoteric. I jot down a question: what do big paintings, made with pomp and tradition, but with the scaling factor of digitized culture, ask of me?
It is always all this old stuff, meeting all this new stuff, for the first time . When Cousteau met a party of Greek divers off the coast of Corsica, he was shocked to learn that they knew nothing of stage decompression, which requires that a diver ascending from great depths halt at ten feet below the surface for 9 minutes to pass off the accumulated nitrogen. So there stood Cousteau and his men, with newfangled aqualungs, wetsuits, masks, and deep-sea diving information, facing the Greeks—a group of men who had practically lived in the water, but still using the same methods of their ancient forbearers. After so many years of popping up to the surface like champagne corks from depths of one hundred and seventy feet or more the divers had suffered from numerous debilitating pressure strokes, which had crippled their able bodies. After each dive, the Greek men were paid for the jewelers’ red coral they were gathering in sacks tied to their sinewy necks; and, earnings in hand, they drug their twisted and knotted bodies to the bars and bistros where they spent it all on booze and dice. On land, these men were the crippled and infirm; however, in the underwater world, their bones and flesh became supple again. The cold jelly of dense water lubricated their joints and they could swim with great agility, like young, lithesome ballerinas. Cousteau and Trudy Benson, with an historical perception of the present, facing the almighty past.
Benson’s work is often compared to her husband’s, Russell Tyler—the same Tyler that she is coupled with for this show.
Tyler said of his work to Painter’s Table in 2013:
"I want [the paintings] to have an old, modernist feel, but also looking at abstraction, not from a Greenbergian perspective...but from a nostalgic perspective...it's adding a more personal perspective...the way we see an image is a little different than a generation before us...because of what media we grew up with.”
Antiquity: the old Beaux-Arts categories of painting and sculpting often want—or feel compelled—to address it. And it is true that we all must, at some point, contend with our ancestors, which seem to be on a shifting axis for Tyler. It was only a couple of years ago that Tyler was primarily painting scenes from dystopia—chaotic tree people in the middle of the sea, a re-rendering of a melting horseman, Frankensteined mash-ups of machines versus people. They were strange, massive, and goopy. Limbs and eyes drooling off the canvas. Almost everything on there looked like it would rather eat flesh than be flesh. Those paintings were offbeat, hard to place, and chancy.
Walking into Retrospective Gallery on the evening of August 15th, things are as they should be: the white walls are up, the art is hung. Benson and Tyler’s paintings were, for the most part, interspersed—a Benson, a Tyler, a Tyler, a Tyler, another Benson, etc; but, unfortunately, this layout seemed to favor Benson over Tyler, whose work was dwarfed—in size and scope—by his wife’s.
As the press release purports, Benson’s paintings in this show do depart from her previous digitally design compositions; and it seems that they have evolved.
The stateliest of which was a large canvas, Invisible Man, taking up the majority of the right-hand wall. Backgrounded by fleshy cubes, a skin cell schema, overlaid with geometric patterning in silver, yellow, and black and white, leaving the suggestion of natural imagery reined in by tight, geometric containers. One is being pressed into the other—a cookie cutter into supple, soft dough—but what is pressing upon this or that isn’t clear, which creates an exciting tension and sense of formal unity. In Art as Experience, John Dewey breaks down substance as form:
“[To have form] is a way of envisaging, of feeling, and of presenting experienced matter so that it most readily and effectively becomes material for the construction of adequate experience on the part of those less gifted than the original creator. Hence there can be no distinction drawn, save in reflection, between form and substance.”
Invisible Man is thickset, athletic, and exudes great control, like an Albert Oehlen sharpened by 210%. The other works mostly follow suit, mirroring what Benson does best.
Tyler’s work, unfortunately, doesn’t hold its shape, not completely, beside Benson’s heat. Where are the roiling lakes of fetid color wheel vomit? I asked myself. Instead, a heavy blue rectangle stacked over a yellow rectangle, also framed in blue—and here’s the cincher: a small diminutive splash of blue, in the bottom left corner of the yellow square. A painter’s commentary on painting; it seems quite self-conscious without being witty. Tyler’s lineage in these works appears to be so historically specific; I could draw his pseudo family tree: Some nearly replicas of Josef Albers, but lacking the spatial dynamism. There’s also hints of Ad Reinhardt and Hans Hoffman, etc. Is this a shift of Tyler, indicative of Jerry Saltz’s applauded/loathed, depending on your camp, article on M.F.A. Abstractions, in New York Magazine last summer?
“Going to galleries is becoming less like venturing into individual arks and more like going to chain stores where everything looks familiar.”
That being said, I did find more to admire in his gestural, impulsive works, those in which, “Tyler pushes the boundaries of confined space by allowing a certain cosmic wildness in which colors collide,” to quote from the press release. One canvas has a black background with cerulean, orange-red, peach detonations, hinting at a burst of impulsivity.
But perhaps my questions should turn back on me and I should be asked: what is it that I was looking for in the first place? Could it be that I’m lusting after an alternative experience, unable to see Delacroix’s “mud of the streets” transformed into “flesh of delicious tint,” my mind stuck in the overly romantic notion of Cousteau’s fuck-it-all, impetuous devotion to something wild and unknowable? Inner force of will and imagination vs. external catalyst and muse?
A couple of storefronts over, Conor Backman’s show, Late painter/new paint, inhabits Retrospective’s other enclave, with inhabit being the operative word here; these works are formally vital. Focusing on the familiar unifying themes of translation and that fading pulse, these pieces are collected under one thesis: Gustave Caillebotte’s 1877 painting Oarsmen Rowing on the Yerres—which Backman has repainted, repurposed, perverted, and abbreviated.
In the largest piece, Recreation and method of reconstruction, Backman has repainted Caillebotte’s work at its original scale from a compressed JPEG. That reproduction, broken into small squares, has been reconstructed into a disarray of painted pieces—Impressionism as pixilation—on top of a backdrop of default desktop blue, the composition hinting at the pastoral scene—boat, oars, water, illumined by brilliant sunshine—but revealing nothing more than fragments—and herein we find the burden of the translator, the problem of shifting modalities, interpreted for the wall. Desktop blue, we are reminded, is not simply the most whatever color of all; it isn’t a frictionless surface. Backman’s concerns are age-old: progression, what’s new and what’s worn, but under present consideration, these concerns are rendered fresh and delivered as a show that presents more problems than answers. It isn’t grand, nor is it flashy. It’s both historical and of its time.
In another work, the oarsmen from Caillebotte’s original painting have been clipped and superimposed onto an anachronistic suburban streetscape, no water in sight; the translator becomes the creator. It’s a good goal for an exhibition: when works are divergent, yet remain interstitial. Other pieces contain modified paint cans, filled with bold primary colors, inserted into paintings as false focal points. It’s both congruous and discombobulating; it reminds me of the plotline to a movie someone told me about several weeks ago. In the movie a woman has déjà vu constantly. That’s all I can remember.
I had not seen the original painting by Caillebotte, Oarsmen Rowing on the Yerres, in a few years, until this show. It’s a painting of two men in a boat, out on the water. They’re wearing white t-shirts, denim, fraying straw hats. We might call these men working class, laborers, shipbuilders; they are not summering in the Hamptons, out for a leisurely row, I do not believe. They are not hoping that their jaunt will rejuvenate or revive. They do not believe that their travel plans will change everything...
The vacation, the alternative experience—it’s similar to so many artists’ attempts to divorce an object or work from its preceding events. Backman seems to pick up on the simple truth: Form does not descend from without, as if it is some transcendent outer essence. It is a process of rethinking, of déjà vu. It’s in your own backyard. It has been all of this time. It is right outside of your door. The only difference: You don’t have a backyard, or a door, because you’re just renting somewhere that’s getting hotter and more expensive.
You're the star of the masquerade
No need to look so afraid
Jump on the tiger
You can feel his heart but you know he's mean
Some light can never be seen
You've been down too long in the midnight sea
Oh what's becoming of me
H O L Y D I V E R – lyrics by Jacques Cousteau
Chelsea Hogue is a writer and artist based in Massachusetts and New York. Her work has previously been published in The White Review and Entropy Mag. You can follow Chelsea on Twitter here: @Chelsea_Hogue. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE