Lynda Benglis

The exhibition of Lynda Benglis’ work at the Hepworth Wakefield is the largest showing of the American sculptor’s work in the UK to date. Its five AUCooms play host to a constellation of around fifty works, spanning the breadth of the artist’s career as well as the multiple sites that have played host to her creative practice. Knots, bows, sheaths and pours punctuate the walls and floors, lampshade figures, plastic monuments and ceramic pots occupy central spaces. In many ways these objects are not straightforward sculptures, their materials are odd; plastic, glitter and wax; their surfaces rough and uneven and forms range from the looming large-scale of ‘The Graces‘ (2003/05) to the narrow reliefs of ‘Grey‘ (1971). The exhibition evidences the artist’s itinerant status, encompassing her posing and parodying interrogation of the New York and Los Angeles art worlds, as well as her movement between different countries. Crucially, the Hepworth show doesn’t translate Benglis’ work into a grand narrative of modern and contemporary sculpture, nor does it situate the artist totally within or without the artworld context. Instead, it captures the vitality of Benglis’ transgressive artistic practice in all its material, conceptual and political complexity.

In the exhibition’s smaller threshold room Benglis’ fallen painting ‘Baby Contraband’ (1969) splurges from the upper-left hand corner reaching out to the aluminium extension of the wall-bound ‘Wing’ (1970). A third work, the video ‘Now’ (1973) nestles in another corner. This triumvirate stand-in for Benglis’ earlier practice, a moment in which she became famous. ‘Baby Contraband’ is an example of one of the works that gained the artist acclaim as the next Jackson Pollock. Made by pouring paint mixed with latex across an area of floor, the pour works extended Pollock’s gestural abstract expressionism from the field of the canvas to the material’s limits. ‘Wing carried this experiment further, returning to the wall but this time as a site for sculpture. The crest of ‘Wing’’s silver wave is process and materiality frozen as art, and this work is one of few surviving from an ambitious series of installations in 1970s.

‘Now’ offers an experiment of a different kind, or rather a different medium. The work plays with video technology and the mediatory possibilities of taping and re-taping, so that the artist converses with and eventually kisses herself. Benglis’ posturing in this work parallels that in the images on display from the print portfolio ‘Self’ (1970-76). These photographs in which the artist dresses and undresses, playing about with different roles and genders, caused a ruckus in the New York art world where they circulated in shows, on exhibition invitations and in the advertising pages of art industry magazines.

The exhibition stages Benglis’ multi-faceted art. For instance her use of glitter to fragment the surface of ‘Sparkle Knot IV’ (1972), an object comprised of unwieldy bends that seem on the cusp of undoing. Or the conglomeration of ceramic objects comprised of tubes or splodges seemingly pressed or pounded into structures and mounds. Or the curvaceous illuminated shades of ‘The Manu Light Vessel III’ (2009) hanging from the gallery ceiling that suggest a complicated figurative-abstract language composed in the everyday. This exhibition takes a fresh approach to the retrospective, not a straightforward celebration of the artist but a curvy meander through a creative experiment that pushed at the borders and boundaries of the art world.

Lynda Benglis continues at The Hepworth Wakefield until 1 July.

Image: Lynda Benglis, The Graces, 2003/2005 Cast polyurethane, lead, stainless steel Image: Courtesy the artist and Cheim & Read, New York.

Image: Lynda Benglis, Wing, 1970 Cast aluminum Image: Courtesy the artist and Cheim & Read, New York.

Amy Tobin is writer and researcher currently finishing a PhD in modern and contemporary art at the University of York.