The Beach Boys apparently recorded a song written by Charles Manson. Nike reportedly designed (but never produced) sneakers inspired by the fact that the members of the Heaven’s Gate religious group all wore its footwear when they committed mass suicide. These are the kinds of bizarre stories, often touching on cults like the Manson Family and the Symbionese Liberation Army, that L.A.-based Scott Benzel plumbed in his New York debut. Greeting visitors were made-in-China Counterfeit Nike ‘Heaven’s Gate’ SB Dunks (2011), bought online and displayed in a vitrine.
The show proved Benzel to be an expert purveyor of such histories, conveyed in multiple mediums and with an appropriately knowing tone. Since getting his CalArts MFA in 2001, where he studied with Michael Asher, the Arizona native has worked for Mike Kelley and had L.A. solos at Human Resources and Public Fiction.
At the opening, Benzel gave a performance, Folk Action and Non-Genre III for Belt Sanders and Female Black Metal Guitarist, that suggested a critique of expressionism. Two long, shallow wooden troughs lay on construction horses; while a guitarist wailed, Benzel spread brightly colored powder along the length of the troughs, and then launched two handheld wood sanders down them, grinding the pigment into the wood.
Benzel’s artistic persona was, of course, less that of expressionist than deejay and researcher. Kiosk (2011-ongoing) is a set of wooden shelves displaying dozens of books and magazines, including oddballs like The Official Guide to the Best Cat Houses in Nevada alongside classics like Frantz Fanon’s 1961 study of colonialism, The Wretched of the Earth. Countercultural titles like Angela Davis’s autobiography and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal this Book accompany L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics and Ed Sanders’s The Family, a study of Manson and his followers.
Other works identify quirky Hollywood tales. ‘The Trip’ (2011) consists of censored posters for the eponymous 1967 feature. When movie studio execs got nervous about the tagline “A Lovely Sort of Death,” with its tongue-in-cheek LSD acronym, they simply covered it up with yellow stickers, which remain in the posters on view.
But perhaps the strongest works are the four vitrines that display various found objects, more or less closely associated by subject or form. Maldistribution Case No. 1 (2011) juxtaposes numerous fraught cylinders, for example Lynda Benglis’s infamous 1974 Artforum dildo ad with issue one of October (founded in 1976 in protest against said ad), opened to a page that features a drawing of a pipe with the Magritte-style caption “ceci n’est pas une pipe.” That, in turn, refers to a grouping of small glass tubes that contain paper roses—the ostensibly romantic gifts are often repurposed, according to urban lore, as crack pipes.
If one were to quibble, one might ask whether any of the material Benzel so lovingly researches means much to him personally. His treatment of the found objects and stories seems steeped in contemporary art’s lingua franca of distanced irony; the viewer comes away engrossed and slightly horrified (Nike sneakers based on a cult suicide??) but also feeling a bit empty. One wonders what he might do if the material he mines elicited blood and tears for him rather than cool fascination.