Barbara Benish: Hybrid Histories
Barbara Benish's work addresses the dual relationships and transformations between nature and culture, religion and ritual, and reason and imagination. Since 1989, Benish has divided her time between Los Angeles and Prague, and her art reflects this mixing of cultures. One of Benish's primary interests is the field of anthropology and, particularly, the relationships between contemporary Western society and other cultures. She has studied the rituals, mythologies, and histories of Native America and traditional Polynesia, as well as our own Catholic, Christian, and Jewish sub-cultures. Her work explores art history, particularly Northern European Gothic art-as well as the dichotomies between art and craft, and the decorative and the domestic.
Barbara Benish: Hybrid Histories focuses on Benish's work over the last decade. Instead of a traditional overview, the exhibition traces the artist's working methods and processes and shows the artist's influences-including original source material. In addition to selected series of her work, this exhibition will include both historical objects that have influenced Benish and her own preparatory studies and drawings.
Interested in the physical properties of found materials, Benish has worked with a variety of media-sculpture, installation, painting, drawing, poetry, and music. Inspired by both everyday, found objects and natural, organic materials, she brings together disparate elements to create new forms. Her work relies heavily on appropriation as an artistic strategy-she invests the original object or image with a new symbolic presence, recontextualizing its meaning. She deconstructs the common interpretations of history through the veiled images of personal memory (birth, childhood, sensuality) and nature's essences (plants, land, air, water).
The exhibition focuses on three of the most pervasive themes in Benish's work-Nature and Culture, the Apocalypse, and Ethnology. The first section, titled "Emancipation into Solitude: The Nature/Culture Opposition," provides an overview of the themes found within the exhibition and a framework for her work. In a variety of forms, the work in this section juxtaposes the emotional, body-centered attributes commonly associated with the feminine, with the rationality and control prized by our culture. The work includes both organic images-reflecting the body and physicality-and images of the world of ideas-reflecting the mind, language, and culture. Supplementary work in this section includes cultural artifacts from the Czech Republic, including china, embroidery, and painted eggs.
The second section, "Songs from Hell/Lines of Pleasure: Visions of the Apocalypse," looks at the Book of Revelations in view of its original etymological/historical roots; its mystery, its politicizing of religious persecution, and its use as a path of enlightenment.Works by Francisco Goya and Albrecht Dürer are presented along with Benish's art and sketches.
The third section, "Encuentro: Mapping Ethnographic Difference," explores the cross-fertilization between European and non-European cultures. It examines ideas of "high" and "low" art, function and form, and the problems associated with Eurocentric interpretations of other cultures. Objects from Pomona College's Native American collection and a Polynesian tapa cloth from UCLA's Fowler Museum of Art are included.
Rebecca McGrew, Curator
Barbara Benish's Interview
This exhibition presented an opportunity for a different kind of catalog essay. We decided to exchange ideas and questions over the Internet-an "email interview"-between Los Angeles and Prague. The following are selected excerpts:
Rebecca McGrew (RM):
What do you view as the most fundamental component of your work as it relates to this exhibition? What first got you interested in cross-cultural exploration?
Barbara Benish (BB):
The idea of "appropriation" seems crucial to this show, drawing from various cultures as I have done. I worked directly in response to the "New York" version of appropriation in my Dürer series (1988-89), trying to embody a relevant use of history, while maintaining a critical eye to "historicizing." As the idea of "context" was examined in contemporary theory (Marcuse, Adorno), I began to look at objects in terms of that, too. This is basically what ethnology is-a living anthropology. I chose to study Polynesian culture in my double major in college:
they are a living, "ancient," traditional society. And that's really when all the cross-referencing and cross-cultural stuff began in my work.
Appropriation as an artistic strategy is vested with so much potential, both good and bad. It is a loaded term, and seems linked to slick, mass media-oriented art of the 1980s-art very different from yours. How do you reconcile this?
When I first started thinking about it in a "theoretical" way in the late 1980s it was AGAINST the trend of Appropriation Art, which I understood as a critique of a market system of art, the commodification of images. While I am all for this critique, I saw, for example, Sheri Levine and Mike Bidlo becoming consumed in that very structure they were supposedly critical of; as it was popular culture they were working with.
So, starting with the Dürer works, I tried to take something totally un-politically correct-white European history-and find something in that history truly worth repeating, or re-representing in a modern context. In blowing up Dürer's etchings into giant stage-set-like paintings, I was recontextualizing the work of the Renaissance into the present. There are things in the work of Dürer that I still find particularly contemporary. For example, his mix of northern and southern European techniques in art; the fact that his was the first self-portrait in Western art history, and what that means for our Western sense of individuality and self. I still believe in aspects of Albrecht Dürer's art. My copying of his work was not a critique, but a celebration of what was still there to be discovered.
How does the work with Dürer and "white European" history and art history segue into your interest in the work of other cultures?
Let me share a wonderful story I read years ago when studying Hawaiian history. One of the gods the ancient Hawaiians worshipped was Lono, who returned every year and ensured good crop production. The Hawaiians would put up a piece of white tapa on a big pole that flapped in the wind like a flag. We don't know what the exact meaning or symbolism of this is. But we do know that when Captain Cook sailed into the Big Island at the end of the 18th century, the otherwise warrior-like and aggressive Hawaiians welcomed him as a king. They brought him and his men food and every luxury possible, and called him Lono. The sails of the ship looked like the worshipping poles erected each year.
It is the overlapping of images from culture to culture that intrigues me. Whether we totally "understand" them or not is not really important. I believe in the power of the image enough to carry something with it beyond language and even culture. For me, "appropriating" images is like taking money out of the bank, not stealing. I try to be careful not to assume anything from the borrowed culture, to impose my cultural baggage on it, to put false meaning onto a foreign object that can only be truly understood within it's own cultural context.
There's a lot of Jung in my thinking here, and the universal, collective unconscious. My borrowing of symbols or forms is meant in this democratic light, and hopefully does not fall into either an imperialistic theft (based on hierarchy), or a romanticized "noble savage" trap, like the early modernist dogma.
Okay, so we are talking about appropriation and that balancing act of turning to other cultures for artistic material. Would you give me an example from our Western culture?
Our culture? Well, my most blatant appropriated piece is probably "Rhyme nor Reason," installed at P.S. 1 in New York City. An old school house, P.S.1 seemed the perfect place to lay out in black and white (literally!) our visual database, i.e., history, once and for all. I got the idea when the curator said my installation would be in a room with a blackboard. We are taught history in this traditional horizontal way, and I wanted to put up every image I could find on a particular theme and see what would happen. Of course, I couldn't do every image, particularly on my theme, "the apocalypse," as history is so rich with pictures of it. In the installation, all the apocalyptic visions were crammed together in a space associated with learning. I hoped people would question what they learned about the apocalypse.
The images were all from Western (white) history, so was this a Western creation? Is Hell only white? Since I'm a white girl, I'm treating my own history as ethnology.
That is one layer of the work. Now the content itself-Goya's wonderfully ambiguous Capricho number 43. What does he mean by "the sleep of reason produces monsters?" Does it mean that if we let our reason sleep, we create monsters? That would be in keeping with the Enlightenment notion of his time. But Goya was a tricky old guy, and I like another interpretation:
that it is reason's other side-the sleeping, unconscious side- that creates the necessary monsters. Way ahead of Jung, we have a dark side that is reflected by a light side. In fact, when one actually reads the Book of Revelations, it's a pretty upbeat text in the end. No brimstone, but a paradisical river peacefully flowing. This wasn't the image the Christians had in mind, so they threw it out of the Bible. That's why I decided to illustrate my own copy, in my "Book of Revelations." I wanted to try and find some of the original apochryphal meaning in the now Europeanized and Christianized text.
Before "Rhyme nor Reason," first shown in 1993, you were "critiquing" issues of cultural representation. You were establishing formal and technical relations between ancient Polynesian designs and your own imagery in the early 1980s. Would you talk more about these cultural hierarchies?
Starting with the Hawaiian tapas and paintings in 1980 and 1982, I was exploring the divisions between high and low art, and between form and function.
For example, Encuentro (1991-92) takes symbols from the Chumash (a California tribe) and the Baja Cave artists (we still don't know who they were), and places them on a contemporary reflective surface: glass and resin. The original drawings probably were used during trance states, to reflect images in the other world-the heavens, the sky, the mind. They were placed out in nature, reflecting the environment around them. My images are placed in an artificial gallery space, reflecting only the viewer who sees them.
The glass cards are lined up like feathers on an arrow or laundry on a line. The armature is wrought iron, recalling to me masts and bows of Columbus' ships and the Spanish gates of some Los Angeles architecture. This work, in 1992, was responding to the 500 year anniversary of Columbus' "discovery" of America. The title is meeting (encuentro in Spanish)-it looks at small intersections where the Spanish European and Native American cultures met.
With my appropriation of Native American astrological symbols, I'm more interested in belief systems and the loss of them in our historical times. So the sea urchin pattern on the tapa cloth is not just appropriated as an image from old Hawaii, but as a container of information on the use of the purple dye the urchin spews, the radial form like the sun, and the value placed on the beauty and use of the animal in the culture.
Reading your discussion of "Encuentro," it strikes me that this "meeting" was a way of looking at the hybridization and intersections between cultures, resulting in the creation of new images and symbols. Would you talk more about this? And, what are the relationships between your "appropriation" and the specific cultures you work with? Why Hawaii, why Native American, why the Western art of Dürer and Goya?
James Clifford's work has influenced my ethnographic/philosophical thinking. All day I've been mulling over the theme you wanted to explore more that of the hybrid and intersections. It's obvious that aspects of previously separate and individual cultures are becoming globalized as we enter the new millenium. And I found this quote by Clifford, by chance:
New definitions of authenticity (cultural, personal, artistic) are making themselves felt, definitions no longer centered on a salvaged past. Rather, authenticity is reconceived as hybrid, creative activity in a local recent-becoming-future.
--"Of Other Peoples, Beyond the "Salvage" Paradigm," in Discussions in Contemporary Culture.
The hybrid is a very American thing. Our culture is really the contemporary mishmash of so many others. And growing up in Southern California, even more so. You know the statistics on different languages in Los Angeles alone, something like 47. So, I was raised Catholic in the southern, Spanish/European/Native zone that is California; with Central European ancestry being my closest cultural group. I moved to Hawaii, in part, to continue my family's tradition of going west, and I was attracted to the meeting of East and West.
Patagium to El Dorado (1991-92) is a tribute to that, and addresses our fears and phobias about integration or cultural mixing. Thus the parachute-a protective device to keep us from "falling" into enemy territory (actually a World War II parachute). I chose to install it in a flower-form, as a kind of ode to the datura flower. If you've read your "Travels with Don Juan," you will remember that this is a very important plant for "traveling" or "tripping" in Indian rituals. When I visited Baja California, this plant was still growing all around the caves.
Parachutes always have been associated with war to me. Then I started researching more, and eventually found Leonardo's sketch of a parachute-more towards flying machines, although he worked a lot with war machines, too. Very masculine. But the flower form, and the use of textiles, is a traditional female arena. Patagium, like most flowers, is a natural echo of the woman's body, unfolding, concave, "delicate," and all the other associations with the vulva and vagina.
To take another tack and touch on belief systems, the idea of Hell is a linear, Western way of thinking. We descend to hell, ascend to heaven. My early catechism books actually showed pictures of them both with access via a ladder! I'm trying to set up a critique of that system:
of right and wrong, light and dark. It's based on the patriarchal religions starting with Judaic-Christian traditions. Before these systems, there were the partnership cultures, based on matrilineal lines and worshipping many gods-mostly the Goddess. Female fertility and abundance were tied into Nature worship, and there you have my use of natural forms, herbs, plants, an echo of the outside/r.
What about more recent pieces? Do you find that the themes and subjects you've touched on before are still current in the work?
A piece like Faust's Hole (1998) uses the myth of Dr. Faustus, and the surrounding imagery of it/him/the story-and Faust's departure from Prague.
The last pieces, the Flower-Power series (1999), look innocent enough, but the shape is ripped off from 1968 plastic stickers. The flowers are definitely a loaded symbol of another time (the 1960s), and I'm recycling them now. The series started with watching my daughter, Gabriela, draw. I remember before 1989 when I would visit Prague, there were only Soviet propaganda posters, no advertising, no "public art." I proposed a public art project in Prague, along a highway that runs along the Vltava river. In large frames, on the boulevard, I wanted to put only flowers, a neutral, "pretty" image. They address those who remember the space "before" and ask if anything can be only decoration? The sculptures are a 3-D expansion of this idea, and a continuation of my interest in floral forms.
Feminism has played a role in your art, in your interests in the relationships between nature and culture, and in those cultures with "matriarchal" structures. What role do you see the feminine playing in your cross-cultural appropriations? Is there a connection?
"Other" is such a political thing now. While I have tried to be sensitive to abusing it, there is the question of the luxury of history to look back at something and recontextualize it falsely. I try to avoid this trap by using my body, the female body and "genderizing" the work, if you will. So-Goya's witches on a broom stick, The Hole in Faust's Bed, Dürer's Virgins, my Venus series (not in this exhibition), The Tree of Epheseus, and the Hawaiian Missionary Dress have elements, formal or mythical, reflecting our own physical mythos and the female body.
In the first section of the exhibition, we are including examples of Czech folk art. What is their relationship to your work? How do you feel that your Czech heritage and living in Prague have influenced you?
The National Series (1992) is an example, it's a playful piece:
a blatant joke on Czech (and therefore all) nationalism. When the Czech and Slovak nations were born, after the end of the Hapsburg rule and World War I, there was still a princely elite. After Communism, they were left without property and retained only their titles and their names on some of the great buildings. This class of people was hated by the "proletariat" of the time. The contemporary Czech Republic is now restituting a lot of these buildings back to the old noble families, and it is a hot issue here. I've taken the most revered buildings of the First Republic Czechoslovakia, so carefully rendered in graphics to sell to a jubilant public of that time, and basically grafittied on them. My "graffiti" is not letters, but onions and garlic--the cliche foods of Slavic cultures.
In every cliche there is some truth (I think Kundera said this), and in the onion thing too. Which is why I've used its form so much in my work. Here is a cultural icon transcending generations to become a rather quiet symbol of the Slavs.
What is a good way to sum up what we are doing? There's still so much to talk about. We haven't really addressed the relationships between reason and the imagination, and the rational and the irrational...
Well, back to the start of the exhibition. Emancipation (1990) will be a good introductory piece, because it addresses history as myth. Dream as collective. Man (in this case, specifically male) as reflecting, yet diametrically opposing Nature. It sets up a nice frame for the rest of the exhibition because in the Magritte hats sit our visual, thinking, rational history (this is how I always thought of his floating derbies-rational man flying through an irrational world) juxtaposed against Nature.
My painting, Tree of Epheseus, is a tree of breasts and milk-a feminine echo of the Emancipation Into Solitude tree. It reminds me of the myth of the goddess of Epheseus, with all the breasts on her chest. She is Artemis and Aphrodite in one, an earlier, Eastern version of the later Greco-Roman goddess. I like her because she is warrior and mother and sexuality all in one body.
And in Emancipation there is the icon of Nature-a tree-yet it is upside down. Many traditional cultures, including Native American, Indian, Chinese, have the upside down tree as a symbol of the Other world. In sum, I'm really trying to explore the role art plays in belief systems (and the loss of) and ritual in contemporary society. So, the dream world, or the real one, that's the question? And here comes Goya again:
where are the monsters, in our reason? Or in our fear of letting go of reason?
Rebecca McGrew, Curator
Barbara Benish, Artist