Benjamin Klein: Tenir les Murs

Benjamin Klein
Tenir des Murs: Exhibition
Joyce Yahouda Gallery
July 22-August 6

Tenir des Murs was a group exhibition at Joyce Yahouda Gallery, literally translated as “to hold up the walls”, a French expression meaning “hang around”. The paintings in the group exhibition were placed on the floor, in effect holding up the walls, allowing a different vantage point from which to view them. I found it a refreshingly casual approach, giving the experience the feel of a studio visit, allowing the viewer to hang around the artwork and indulge in leisurely visual pleasures.

Presented this way, but in their own wing of the gallery as a solo, were four summer night-lush 2015 works making up Benjamin Klein’s Exhibition, from what the artist calls his “Bugs” series, a world he created as part of his MFA thesis exhibition at the University of Guelph that was later shown in his show Generator in Montreal. The word “generate” is still very relevant here.

Generate: “To bring into existence, cause to be, produce. To create by a vital or natural process. To reproduce, procreate.”

In these four never-before exhibited works, we see the characters and features Klein has been working with for years, a plethora of bioluminescent life, of ladybugs, snails, fluorescent planets, spiders and glowing orbs all dwelling within nocturnal landscapes where the hinterland and the garden or park meet. Vital and natural are two very apt words to describe these paintings.  The work is vital to the artist, and their existence is vital. The natural process of painting, highlighted in expressive brushwork which clearly shows the hand of the artist, is the perfect medium for such scenes. Benjamin Klein is an artist who welcomes a variety of interpretations to his work. My interpretations are mine alone, perhaps, and I have only been face to face with six of his paintings, but they were enough to make me stand back and almost gasp at their dark beauty and power upon first entering the room they were displayed in. Because of their size, energy, luminosity, the subtlety of their colour variations and the sensitivity of their brushwork, these are works that must be seen in person to be fully appreciated. Something about seeing his works face à face gives insight into what the paintings tell you about yourself, but more insight is perhaps afforded from keeping an open mind to the myriad possibilities which can shift from day to day with your perception.

Francis Bacon said “the job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery”, and Klein does his job exceptionally well. Not only does he create mystery, his paintings evoke the magic and imaginative force of childhood, no mean feat in a world of contemporary art which sometimes seems to extol irony and that which can be comprehended by the intellect alone above all.  In my opinion, it is also an especially brave and laudable approach for a male painter working in an expressive style, an inheritor of the legacy of de Kooning, Bacon, Soutine and so on. In this body of work there is also a relationship to the work of Van Gogh, Chagall, certain paintings by Matisse, and, of course, our contemporary masters who work with playfully serious painterly force, Dana Schutz and Allison Schulnik to consider, among others, but Klein’s painterly signature is unique. The notion of lila—Sanskrit for play—comes to my mind with his work. Lila is a game with a serious edge in which the entire universe is generated by the creative play of the divine.

The fact that he chooses to paint in what at first glance seems to be in an utterly direct, honest and almost naïve manner, in actuality is something informed, considered, layered, subtle and skillful. It also appears to reflect a depth of philosophy, a balance of male and female principles within, and a consciousness that art speaks to us on an elemental level as well as a mental. The vast majority of artists who paint in an expressive, figurative way do so because they are engaged with the ability of paint to convey emotion as well as thought through subject and form, and Klein is no exception. This style and these choices are in no way inferior to other ways of making art, yet they continue to be disparaged as somehow lesser than other ways of making.

Why ladybugs?  Klein tells the story of the genesis of the ladybug theme, how he encountered what he calls a ladybug graveyard in his studio, which he found “oddly compelling and beautiful, memorable and uncanny”. Ladybugs, though associated with luck and the innocence of childhood, viewed so largely and painted so boldly make the viewer feel like one of them, part of their story. It also causes their colour to be in the foreground of our perception. Red and black, primal colours, often signify blood and the deepest shadows. Thus, they bear a paradox in their very form, making them appropriate vehicles of story and meaning. The deceased ladybugs are given new life in paint by Klein, reanimated through colour and energy as they play out their psychodramas and intrigues. The stories become almost archetypal when you place yourself in the ambiguous positions of the snail, the spider, the ladybug or the firefly.

The first piece I encountered was Different Roads. All of these paintings are large, and first I was struck by the overwhelming hot and pure cadmium red of the ladybugs, alternately perceived to be drowning in a disintegrating landscape and emerging from the earth under a beautifully rendered deep blue sky exquisitely subtle yet expressive, looming darkly above softly detailed grass twinkling with fireflies. Ladybugs move through a sea of grass, almost as if they are forming out of it, numinous. Black forms in the background echo the shapes of the insects. What are the different roads? Perhaps the title refers to the limen, the borderland where one must choose the wild or the garden, or elsewise it could suggest the varied paths we walk in life portrayed via the endlessly travelling and busy insects, or the interspecies differences between the lone snail and the myriad ladybugs in the foreground.  These bugs do seem to be newly generated, in a state of prolific, joyful procreation, re-animated through colour and movement, vibrating with energy. We see the secret lives of creatures practically unknown to us, living deep within what could be a city park at night.

Allowed to hum on a wall of its own is All Through the Night, the macrocosm to the ladybug microcosm. My first thought was that the title was borrowed from the familiar lullaby, but Klein recalls the 80s love song of the same title by Cyndi Lauper. Over a hot pink dripping ground, jubilant brushstrokes tangle with cadmium yellows, burning sun oranges, buzzing ultramarine and Prussian blues that are exceptionally hard to do justice to in a photograph. When I look at the cosmos depicted, I think of artist as creator, and the pure joy of the potential to depict all things from the microcosm to the macrocosm, insects to galaxies.  Is it a world before humans? Klein suggests it could be the sky above the ladybug world.  Of the four works shown here, this one is the most abstract. It is a part of our solar system, but not, an alternate Saturn surrounded by quantum suggestions of form in paint.  It is like the famous experiment in which tiny bits of matter—paint—are shot at a screen—canvas—and quantum waves of potential paths, when watched by the viewer, coalesce into specific form. Personally, I saw cellular structures, honeycomb, male genitalia, and a smiley face. Klein says: “I’ve always found it impossible to paint something that isn’t a representation, even in the cases of virtually abstract images, there’s always a fusion of subject and form.” In this world devoid of humans, consciousness and feeling are nevertheless ubiquitous, mirrored in the insect exploits in their occult world. The handling of paint and the subject matter show the balance of control and abandon, order and chaos, a theme echoed in the garden/woodland relationship throughout the Bugs series. The title suggests what transpires in the sky while we are in bed.  I can’t help but picture a cosmic world above lovers and return to the quantum theme, envisioning in this, exploding stars dying yet shining and forming new patterns in direct relation to their embrace.

In Sweeter than Ever, a dream viewed through the looking glass, a pink luminous snail with a blue shell and a beneficent mien is surrounded by floral abundance, dancing firefly-stars and a mysterious glow which comes from under a hill at the water’s edge. Reflected in the water in the place where we ought to see the reflection of the snail, instead we spy the distorted reflection of a blue spider, another recurrent player in Klein’s Bugs series. Are they lovers? Do they long for each other? Or is it an approaching menace, hovering over the snail and about to descend, a watery warning?  This is the most enigmatic piece in the exhibition. There seem to be allusions to love or life being sweet, with the blooming flowers, inner glow and aqueous reflection. Love and life are never completely safe, even at times of peak happiness, there is always a danger of loss or change.

The last painting was Awake at Dawn, which must depict very early morning when blue light is cast all around, because the sky is primarily dark, yet, the overall feel is of a day-glo Van Gogh landscape. The orbs which I normally interpret as fireflies, here I read as stars which twinkle through the atmosphere in variegated colours, seemingly self-determined in their freedom to float where they will.  A soft, verdant mushroom cloud of foliage is supported or projected by the shaft of a radioactive-looking yellow trunk.  Glowing energy and power push from under the earth. Blades of glass shine with tiny lights among the ladybugs, who seem to be travelling through a swamp of liquid green alongside stars; playing with perspective and space is a recurrent technique of Klein’s which helps to bring us a dreamlike state of perception.

Joseph Bueys said: “Imagination, inspiration and longing all lead people to sense that these other levels also play a part in understanding.” Benjamin Klein’s paintings have long been solely crafted from his imagination and hand, and the role of imagination is especially strong in these evocative paintings. They bring to mind the magic of childhood, when in every one of us, creativity is as natural as breathing and for many, existence is fraught with deep meaning unfathomable by the conscious mind. It is a time closer to the origin of life and consciousness, a time close to the heart of many an artist. The force of childhood—that crucial time of our emergence into this world—weighs on all of us for good and ill, and we would do well to recall what truly nourishes the heart. It is interesting that the meaning of these works is a mystery even to the artist, their symbolism shifts and is uncertain, fluid. These paintings function as dreams do, but their world is a dream which can be collectively shared.

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