Speaking with a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1989, Lynda Benglis expressed her disdain for a Puritan strain of society that, as she put it, “gets nervous if things are too pleasurable, too beautiful, or too open.” Feminist art’s most significant legacy, for her, was a liberation from such circumscribed notions of taste. Her show of new sculptures at Cheim & Read proved that Benglis is still able to run with that freedom, as she has for the past half-century. Many of the works consist of cocoonlike chicken-wire armatures wrapped in paper painted in bold, glittering Mardi Gras hues or, with just a few streaks of ground-coal paint, barely at all. Hung high and low across the gallery walls, these pieces appeared like so many butterflies about to take flight.
Driven by a feminist critique of historical continuity, Benglis’s oeuvre rejects linear progress, as seen with her return to chicken wire, which she used in the ’70s as a frame for polyurethane foam spills and in wall-mounted plaster pieces. As if to demonstrate this point, Look Back (2015–16) performs its titular operation by echoing, in its twisting, roiling form, the slits and orifices of Benglis’s earlier work, which is so often equated with human anatomy. Like an asymmetrical helix, a swath of chicken wire winds loosely around the front of Look Back’s vertical core. The passage curves gently around to expose its hexagonally patterned wire support, attesting to Benglis’s ongoing commitment to revealing process and suggesting her engagement with a dramatic openness of form. Her production seems motivated not by outside formal or political expectation, but by urgent curiosity about the behavior of materials: how liquids pool, clay curls, fingerprints fire, paper drapes.
There is an unshakeable sensuality to the paper works. One imagines the tactile sensations of stretching and applying the wet paper, a process that the artist, in a video on the gallery’s website, refers to as “fleshing the form out.” Benglis often thinks like a painter, and the association in these works between surface and skin is indisputable. The upper portion of Scudder Flip (2016), for example, curls forward, so that light falling through this area lends the paper the translucency and fragility of human tissue. The first artist to make sculpture of paint, Benglis has long scrambled conventional distinctions between mediums. While surely we’re beyond policing medium boundaries, one salutary aspect of Benglis’s paper works is the facility with which she plays with such traditions: she enlivens the grid, that ur-signifier of painting’s flatness, by crooking and kinking her chicken wire into three dimensions, while simultaneously flouting sculpture’s historical reliance on concealed interior cores.
In addition to the paper sculptures, the exhibition included two other works, each made this year and shown in its own gallery. One is an androgynous cast-aluminum figure that challenges the portrayal of idealized male and female bodies throughout art history. Its title, The Fall Caught, evokes the creation myth while also, more prosaically, pointing to gravity’s pull on the figure, which leans back on the wall for support. The second work is Elephant Necklace (2016), a sequence of black ceramic curls installed in a circle on the floor. Imprints of Benglis’s fingers testify to her handling of the malleable clay.
The various sculptures on view demonstrate that, for Benglis, art need not conform to external pressures of any kind, whether formal conventions, gender binaries, or ever-shifting notions of taste. Extending this license to her audience, Benglis insists it is the viewers’ prerogative (“pleasure,” as she called it in 2014) to read what they want into her work. As such, her sculptures are contingent, propositional, and profoundly generous. They perform, like the coiling and yawning forms of her new paper pieces, a radical openness.