Introduction

IN BRIEF: PAUL BENNEY

Paul Benney has worked as an artist and musician in both the U.S. and U.K. and is represented in public collections world wide including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Australia, The National Portrait Gallery,  The Royal Collection, The Eli Broad Foundation, AIG Houston, and Standard Life.

Benney has twice won the public choice award in the BP Portrait Awards and has been short listed on two occasions. In 2013 he was invited to be one of the judges for the Threadneedle prize at the Mall Galleries.

A member of the Neo-Expressionist group of the early 80’s in New York’s East Village, Benney became known for his depictions of stygian themes and dark nights of the soul. Also one of the country’s leading portrait artists, he has painted many prominent cultural and political figures.

RACHEL CAMPBELL JOHNSTON on PAUL BENNEY

Chief Art Critic for ‘The Times’. 
Excerpt from the Foreword of ‘Paul Benney: Night Paintings’.

Benney paints figures which, while their meanings can never quite be fixed, embody some sense of our spiritual quest. Here is his water carrier stalking a barren mountain landscape, balancing his twin flasks of purest crystal light. They sparkle like diamonds amid the deep enriched colours of a world set aglow by the fire of the sun as it sets. The simple is made precious in this alchemical vision.

Or the diviner, no longer carrying the split willow twigs of earlier paintings but a metal detector instead. He crawls like an insect across stark expanses, sweeping the emptiness in search of his treasure, plugged into some heartbeat that we cannot hear. Here are figures that float across empty canvases. Are they rising or falling or simply suspended in space? Strange emanations appear to pour from them. Is it the mist of their breathing or a heavenly aura? And here too are portraits of friends – of modern day disciples – each touched and transformed by what would feel like a Pentecostal flame were it not for the fact that its fires, rather than descending from the heavens, seem to rise up from their foreheads as if it is their consciousness that has kindled and caught light.

The landscape is similarly transformed. Benney may be painting natural phenomena – the morning mist as it lingers above a dew pond, the fragile clouds of the seed heads which float over flowery meadows – but their delicate beauty keys in to our sense of an extra dimension. Anyone who has walked out in the early morning will recognise it. The mundane becomes mystic and the normal feels numinous in this transubstantiated world. Benney looks – sometimes very directly – at the work of the Symbolists, at their belief that art should convey those absolute truths which can only be described indirectly.

On one level, the world Benney paints seems somehow far removed from us. We look as if through a window. We sense the dividing glass. The water carrier strides on his way unaware of us. The figures float oblivious. The chair by the pool is deserted. Not a step disturbs the thistledown. And yet, at the same time, they feel somehow familiar. We approach with a strange sense of déjà vu. We have walked these places before. They belong to the lands inside our heads.

Benney shows us our lives as they balance on that fragile boundary between the perfectly ordinary and the profoundly otherworldly. He seeks to capture that mystery which redeems us from the mundane.

JOSEPH CLARKE

Owner, The Anima-Mundi Gallery, UK. 

A self portrait sits in the corner of Paul Benney’s studio. Its title is ‘Janus’. The two faced deity. Looking forwards and backwards. Observing two states. Rooted between.

For the past thirty years Paul Benney has worked both in the United States and United Kingdom. His paintings are notably represented in a plethora of public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The National Gallery of Australia and The National Portrait Gallery in London, alongside many prominent private and corporate collections.

Benney’s career is an intriguing one. He is a multi-disciplined artist whose oeuvre moves beyond clear and definitive categorization although his work could be seen to continue the strong tradition of ‘British Mysticism’ championed by the likes of Samuel Palmer and William Blake. Clearly, the primary mode of expression is paint, which he handles with profound technical dexterity, but to add to this he is also a goldsmith (skills learned from his father, the celebrated goldsmith Gerald Benney), a sculptor, a musician and also a perfumer, all of which he is able to carry out with notable esoteric ability and accomplishment. He is a polymath – a modern Renaissance Man. Marcus Aurelius once stated that “Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.” But the tangibility of technique is only one face; the artist must also have a passion to use the senses to delve in to the unsolved.

Francis Bacon proclaimed that ‘The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery” – Indeed Benney does not do all the work for you, the viewer. You stand in front of the often shimmering, surface of the work and observe. He makes paintings that you have to look at, marvel at and then contemplate. These paintings defy fixed meaning, concentrating more on a journey than a destination. As with the ‘Janus’ piece, one has more than one direction to follow and decipher.

A huge painting dominates the studio. ‘Dying Slave’. How should one interpret this? A nude figure rises from the whirling deluge of water beneath his feet, surrounded by flames and flowering embers pushing upwards – is this a hopeful image of life, immortality, defiance and / or transcendence? Or in fact the same figure pulled in to the dreadful abyss, sinking, un-escapable, the flickering flames about to be engulfed by the great flood. Extinguished. These two (and Im sure other) potentials coalesce on one plain.

In the opposite corner of the room two ovals are hung. Shimmering black glass. Reflective. Seductive yet impenetrable. Benney shines a torch on them, and from the core I see a painted face from depths staring back at me. These ‘Scrying Mirrors’ are quite unlike anything I have seen before; perplexing and magical. These works mine the intersection of technological advancement, mysticism and phantasmagorical phenomena creating an immersive experience reminding one of ecstatic revelation, stage magic, spirit photography, pseudoscience, telekinesis, and other manifestations of the paranormal.

I notice another detail in many of the works in the studio. The emanation of flickering light (almost flame like) rising from the head, signifying an animation of the spirit or soul. It is imagery that connects all creed and colour echoing through many different religions from the sacred art of Ancient Greece, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. This flame feels eternal. Alchemical.

It is interesting to me that Benney’s studio works are often viewed and described as ‘otherworldly’ or ‘visionary’. If by that it is meant that they go beyond the prosaic of what we see everyday with our eyes in the limited space beyond our own noses; then I would agree. But these are not works that are placed somewhere else beyond our concern. Leonora Carrington once stated “The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope.” For me these paintings reveal on multiple levels a diverse state of existence. One where life and death co-exist. The inner and the outer. Matter and spirit. The known and unknown. The past and the Future. And at the heart of them the illusion of the fixed in between state – The Present. Is that not a vivid representation of the rounded reality of the human condition?

HONOR CLERK

20th Century Curator, National Portrait Gallery, UK. 1980-2001.

The son of a celebrated goldsmith, Gerald Benney, Paul Benney is the grandson of the early 20th century British impressionist, Sallis Benney.  Benney credits both for his early training in the approach to the creative process and appreciation of the mystery of transforming raw materials into objects of beauty.

Benney has a holy horror of slick painting. In the work of his New York years, he developed a nihilistic image bank of alienation and desolation, a world drawing on the blasted landscape of Flanders, the vertiginous interiors of Piranesi, and the menace of Goya’s black paintings, and found the technique and materials to frustrate any glib facility. His work was in constant demand, both in New York, and across the United States and Europe. A high point came with the purchase by the Metropolitan Museum of Art of two of Benney’s paintings Heretic Healers and Depth Charges II in 1986.

In these early years of international acclaim, portraiture had played no part; but on returning to England, the successful commission of an official portrait of Anthony Quick, the headmaster of Bradfield College posed something of a dilemma. In New York contemporary Art World terms, the descent from gallery exhibitions to commissioned portraiture represented a sell-out; but while in Britain such distinctions may have been felt in general terms, the work of artists such as Lucian Freud still gave the genre a credibility and integrity to which Benney could respond. The result was something of a split personality. In Britain his portrait practice grew rapidly by word of mouth, and two important early portraits of Lord Ashburton and Sir Martin Jacomb, bankers with extensive contacts both in business and art circles, led to a string of further sitters.

But it was not only in portraiture that Benney’s work progressed. In 1989 he was invited by the Berini Gallery to stage a solo exhibition in Barcelona. Whilst living there he came under the influence of Lorca, and obsessed by the untranslatable Spanish quality of duende – grace, courage, skill and dignity.  His private mythology moved on from the melodrama of the early New York paintings to hermetically sealed landscapes lit by a supernatural light where people and things spontaneously combust, to a world in which Pan (The Pantheist, 1989), smoke wafting from his head, dances towards us, his legs silhouetted by an eerie blue light, his head turned to concentrate on the cat’s cradle he makes between his hands.

 

ADRIAN DANNAT

Writer and Curator,  
Descending Line : An excerpt from ‘Paul Benney: Night Paintings’ 

Paul Benney has built his distinctive aesthetic over the course of thirty years of work, an oeuvre whose atmosphere and resonance, whose presence, is entirely recognizable despite its wide variety of media, technique and format. Benney has made drawings, prints, objects and sculptures, paintings, porcelain and music, all of them as strikingly original in their singular state as they are cohesive as a group, as gesamtkunstwerk even.

The range of Benney’s materials are as assorted as his manifold production, whether feathers and tar, handmade paper and found wood, metals and resin, oil and charcoal, slate and canvas, rope and bitumen, acetate or ink. Benney’s status as the ‘total’ artist is made clear by that rare combination of technical ability, flawless skill, and a true sense of adventure and daring that continually pushes him further to explore his work. This is a highly unusual double-act, for often the technically gifted artist is too wary or precious ever to extend the horizons of their work whilst the boldly experimental artist often lacks the commensurate skill.

Knowing that Benney spent his early life around silver, its properties and its processes, one cannot but ponder on the curious resemblance of much of his palette to the texture and tone of this metal when tarnished and left to darken. There is a very specific sort of smoky blackness, a clouded darkness not unlike the stain of soot and candle flame which silver claims and that seems to haunt Benney’s own work. This is notably so through his more recent use of resin, some of whose effects really do suggest the same chemical and magical obscurity that slowly overtakes unpolished silver. In this sense Benney’s art is far from ‘polished’ but instead suggests things of great material and aesthetic value left out to accept the transformations of time.

The sombre richness of Benney’s aesthetic is at its strongest throughout what he terms his ‘Night Paintings’, a perhaps deliberate reference to the ‘Night Piece’ prints by Rembrandt whose dark tonal burr likewise captures an intimate sense of nocturnal mystery and magic. Rembrandt is an obvious point of comparison to Benney, whether in their mutual skill and worldly success as portraitists or in their compensatory lure towards the shadow and the very dark itself.

It is curious that although the role of the artist is surely to widen our curiosity, to expand our sense of the possibilities and to dextrously avoid all categorisation, there is always a desire to reduce every artist to an easily referenced stereotype, to genre, style or school. Thus those ‘movements’ so beloved of art historians, critics and journalists and so loathed by their supposed participants give rise to books that define and group: ‘Women Artists’, ‘Scottish Watercolourists’ or ‘Postmodern Potters’.

Benney is an especially troublesome case for those who demand that every artist should have their perfect pigeonhole, their unchanging identity, rather than, as in his case, a plethora of personae or a stance of ‘silence, exile and cunning’.