Michael Brennan: When I first saw your work I thought, “Here’s a painter who’s a wildcard.” And I wanted to know on a personal level: Were you always a rule breaker? Were you a problem child?
Trudy Benson: As a kid, no; as I got older, I guess I was. I had dreadlocks when I was in high school, so nobody’s parents wanted their kid to hang out with me.
“The significance is that the perspective drawing is not really based in natural observation. It’s more about creating your own; it’s more of an idea about what the space is.”
In Conversation: Michael Brennan Interviews Trudy Benson
Michael Brennan: When I first saw your work I thought, “Here’s a painter who’s a wildcard.” And I wanted to know on a personal level: Were you always a rule breaker? Were you a problem child? Trudy Benson: As a kid, no; as I got older, I guess I was. I had dreadlocks when I was in high school, so nobody’s parents wanted their kid to hang out with me.
MB: The other thing that struck me, even in your early work, was that you were very excessive in your use of oil paint. You make a De Kooning or a COBRA painting, even a Jonathan Lasker look anemic, and I wondered where your love for the excessive oil paint came from. Did you always work in excess?
TB: No. When I first started painting, I was painting pretty photo-realistic, very flat, figurative work.
MB: Wow, that’s surprising.
TB: And, as I got more and more interested in surface, I started using more paint against flatter areas… the excessive use of paint is more about having a different, varied surface.
MB: One thing that you’ve done that I think is a genuine contribution—not just sort of the mixing and matching of flat space with a little thickness—is that your paintings, in contrast to a lot of American-type painting, often have kind of a shallow space, like a theatrical space, almost like a short stage, a foreshortened stage. It reminds me of the opening scenes in Fellini’s Satyricon. You almost create a theatrical envelope, which I think heightens the experience of your paints as actors within that space. I’m curious about how you came to that, because it seems to be something that painters from your generation are doing quite a bit at the moment.
TB: I definitely think about the different elements of the painting as almost figurative even though I certainly consider these to be abstract works. In the work I was making this summer, they were even more stage-like and I was setting up kind of an illusionistic space for these marks to perform.
MB: I hear a lot of young artists talking about “puppet theater,”* or alluding to that kind of space even though that sounds…
TB: Scary? (laughs)
Trudy Benson, White Painting, (Detail Shot) 2011. Oil, oil enamel, Flashe, acrylic, and spray paint on canvas, Courtesy of Mike Weiss Gallery
MB: Or undesirable. I mean, who would want to compare their grand abstract paintings to puppet theater? But it seems to be there’s something about that kind of space that people are reacting to…
TB: With the newer works, I’m thinking of the idea of space photos or computer-generated space, more like video games or 3-D Imaging, where it’s not really based in a real space. I think of a perspective drawing where you have rules that you follow that, but in reality it’s not…
MB: Oh, so you do like rules?
TB: No! There are no rules in my painting. The significance is that the perspective drawing is not really based in natural observation. It’s more about creating your own; it’s more of an idea about what the space is.
MB: Let’s talk about the video game aspect for a minute because I am of the generation that hit puberty at the same time that Space Invaders came out, so I’m far at the beginning. Were you into video games, I mean that’s more of a…
MB: I know my son is totally engulfed at the moment. Let’s talk about space photography for a minute. This is kind of a pet peeve of mine. They are so universally appealing. Mario Livio from the Space Telescope Institute said that space photographs from the Hubble were like the Renaissance paintings of our time. And, they are; I find them very fascinating. Other people just sort of see the dance of dust. But the truth about those photographs is that they’re heavily manipulated. If you look through a telescope, Saturn isn’t as multi-colored as it is in National Geographic. So they’re basically tweaked after the fact and the color is pushed up. They’re sort of tarted up and sensationalized. So I wonder, is that the aspect that you are responding to, or the cosmic aspect, is it the cosmic or the cosmetic?
TB: I’m responding more to the cosmetic with regard to the way I’m thinking about space… I’ve been thinking about the Abstract Illusionists a lot, and I am always thinking about how space photographs are completely unreal…
MB: When you say Abstract Illusionists you’re talking about those abstract painters that would like airbrush in a shadow so that it would look like.
TB: Yes, like Al Held.
MB: Well, his late work is really interesting. I think those are very analogous with video games and Star Trek movies and whatnot. And he’s on the legitimate side of things, but the people who actually call themselves the Abstract Illusionists they…
TB: They’re kind of crazy!
MB: Yeah, they were sort of untouchable. They were sort of on the fringe of bad taste. And yet, every painter that I know is fascinated by their bag of tricks because they come up with interesting solutions, and fine painters are always looking for that kind of thing. That makes a lot of sense with respect to your work, but I prefer the way that you deploy it. And how about the chromatic sequencings? In the last few years you seem to be doing a lot of taking a color and desaturating it in concentric bands. Is that also an influence of space photography or is that more thinking about Albers, or the rules of abstract painting, or something like that?
TB: I think first that came out of looking at Saturn’s rings but I also like to have elements that when you see the painting, I mean just visually, if you saw that band from twenty, forty feet away it would look like a pure gradient and then when you get up close, there’s more on the surface for you to look at. But the purer gradients that aren’t divided like that are more about being a vacuous space or light, but they are painted thickly so when viewed closely they end up reading as solid forms.
MB: So, maybe our conversation is a little too formal. What do you think your paintings are about? What do they allude to? Is it just about paint?
TB: They are not just about paint. I sometimes, when I am being very optimistic, I like to think about them as radios…
MB: Another kind of transmitter?
TB: In a way, yes, I want people to see them and to create a powerful or lively experience with my paintings. And they’re almost, like I said before, they’re figurative in a way to me, so sometimes I think about them as living radios. They are not completely about transmission, though.
MB: Is there anything you won’t do? Is there any material that you refuse to work with?
TB: I don’t think I want to paint any faces. Or any outright…
MB: But you’ve flirted with using Batman?
TB: Yes, I’ve used Batman, but that was more of an icon than a realistic, figurative element.
MB: So you were almost responding as much to the shape?
TB: Yeah, it was more about the shape. I like using iconic shapes, I like using circles, Os; I use Ts. But I don’t think I would use outright figurative elements in this work, not anymore. Maybe in the future—I do like the idea, I think, that an abstract painting could have naturalistic elements, representative of the natural world, and still be an abstract painting. I do like that idea.
*The term “puppet theater” notion coined by Nat Meade in a recent lecture on contemporary figurative painting at Pratt Institute.
Trudy Benson is represented by Mike Weiss Gallery in New York.