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Withholding the Narrative

In Christopher Benson’s painting, color is close to the pure force Mondrian made possible. The clear representation of the scenes he depicts invites a realist reading; but the paintings’ constructed organization – and the odd angles viewed – belie that interpretation and instead suggest artifice. Perception and artifice thus simultaneously claim to be the truth. At first we look and think we know the subject, then look again to realize it is a fabrication. He uses color in its abstract role as the foundation of form, yet also as the distilled, resonant color of remembered objects.

The subjects of Benson’s pictures are ostensibly the alleys and vacant parking lots of seemingly inactive manufacturing buildings, or the quiet, sometimes peopled, interiors of suburban households. Despite their familiarity, we come to know little of these realms or their inhabitants. Rather, we find that the severity of the modern aesthetic, having eliminated the decorative filigree of its predecessors, has become the ordering principle of the contemporary physical world; the idea has become tangible. Benson’s painting reclaims that idea in its applied permutations and has it both ways by showing us the real and the abstract together.

Benson did not arrive at this point in a flash. From his early narrative paintings of New England, New York City and the suburbs of San Francisco, to his later, more purely planar abstractions, there was a tension between his interests. The obvious appeal of Edward Hopper, among others, pervades much of the early work. He looks to the same sorts of places Hopper did for his subject matter. But where Benson differs is in having unbuckled the narrative from the image. We love to read a Hopper painting cinematically, as if it were a frame from Hitchcock. Both Hitchcock and Hopper depicted pregnant moments that filled us with anticipation and veiled portent. Benson withholds such narrative cues, building scenes in which each patch of color is applied with the same emotional pitch. Possibly forlorn buildings are depicted evenly with no special touch distinguishing them from sky or ground. Oh, he’s clever; long walls of industrial plants are fenestrated with an impossibly small window, but there is never a tendentious touch proclaiming that these are poetic proportions. There is only the dry, quiet power of beautifully applied paint. It is in fact the very absence of the didactic that causes one to linger before each canvas: Their resonance resides in their taciturn presence.

Rebecca West once asserted that conversation is an illusion – that in reality there are only intersecting monologues. In a world of ever more bombastic exchange, there is a timeless peace to be found in these carefully considered paintings. Benson knows where he came from and comfortably finds his own voice without disavowing the art historical precedents that made it possible. The severity of his depictions can be reminiscent of Charles Sheeler’s earlier deadpan modernist realism, but he betrays an equal interest in Mondrian’s sparse abstraction, and carries forward both Cezanne and Morandi’s intention for painting to be a theater in which the perceived evokes the ideal. Perhaps even more to the point is Benson’s resemblance to Piero della Francesca. Like Piero, he paints a world that exists outside of the tarnishing of time. And though his paintings possess a reverence for that world, they do not instruct us on how we should feel about it.

—Peter Devine