BARTON LIDICE BENES' 'DANGEROUS' ART

Thursday, 6 September 2012

'Brenda', cremation ashes of Brenda Woods, 1993

It is rare to see things of a dangerous and sickening nature locked to the beautiful.
- Jelena Zetterstrom, journalist, art critic & editor of Bruno Magazine

In my last art post, I wrote about two pieces of design by Kevin Champeny which used appearance misleadingly to suggest harm in an object which was in reality harmless. Related to this idea of the harmful and harmless and the juxtaposition of ideas in art, I began thinking of one of my favourite artists, Barton Benes. I posted about his book of collections, 'Curiosa', in one of my very early posts on this blog and this was one of the catalysts for my beginning to collect in earnest. I also recently read 'The Curious Closets of Barton Benes' by David Groff for POZ magazine in August 1999, which is a beautifully honest, wonderfully explanatory and touching article.

Benes sadly died this year (his obituary was published in the New York Times), leaving behind his apartment collection of over eighty-five thousand objects, from bone chips of Catholic saints, to a stuffed giraffe head, to a straw used by Lewinsky. One of his early exhibitions (and one of his most controversial) was 1993's 'Lethal Weapons', which explored public reaction to and preconceptions about AIDS. Featuring objects and his own HIV-positive blood, most galleries refused to exhibit it, and his work had to be heated at 160 degrees in a hospital oven before it was allowed to be publicly displayed. In the end, the North Dakota Museum of Art took the exhibition, and he exhibited there multiple times since. One of my favourite pieces of his from the Lethal Weapons series, 'Essence', is now for sale. If only I had the kind of money required for it!

Benes left his entire collection to the museum, including every item in his apartment, and the museum has measured and photographed his space in order to recreate it in its entirety within the museum. The museum's director Laurel Reuter wrote a beautiful article on Benes' life and work, which I'd definitely recommend reading. Having watched his friends' apartments being cleaned out after their deaths of AIDS, Benes decided to preserve what he would leave behind, and control it - he has asked for his and his mothers ashes to be placed upon his bed, in front of reruns of Judge Judy when the exhibition is set up. It was this mix of dark humour and sentimentality that played throughout his work and made him famous, and will continue to do so after his death.
[His work] reaches across time for sacred and historical images that have been the traditional carriers of hope: a crucifix, a rosary, a carved god, a wishbone, a lucky penny. Then he intertwined the symbols of hope with equally powerful symbols of defeat. His collections expand and intermingle with these same metaphors and symbols.
- Laurel Reuter, director of the NDMOA


'Crown of Thorns', cremation ashes of John Fuson, 1999



No comments:

Post a comment