On Painting in the American West in the Twenty-First Century

Despite being a life-long realist, I have also been painting abstractions ever since my student days in the 1970s, though I've only occasionally exhibited that work. After putting on a big retrospective show of my figurative and landscape paintings in 2017, I began to bring this more non-objective alter ego to the forefront, while also searching for ways to blend these two long, formerly parallel lines of my interest together.

I've always had a "painterly" approach, with brush and knife marks clearly evident in my surfaces. It's challenging though to find a physical abstraction which doesn't just recycle the big gestures of the New York School, or call up the familiar vocabularies of Bay Area painters like Park and Diebenkorn. Even so, I have no interest in the slick abstraction that proliferates today across the internet. So much of contemporary painting has become neurotic about novelty — too determined to distance itself from any reference to its own origins. Manet and Cezanne, two of the iconic forefathers of Modernism, were able to be startlingly innovative while still openly tipping their hats to the masters who preceded them. For me too, an art that can't comfortably retain some of the hoary residue of its own history is no art at all.

American painting has long been stuck in a project of self-mythologizing, and the desert southwest, where I live, has especially been a myth-making place for American painters. We immediately think of a Georgia O'Keeffe or an Agnes Martin as the emblematic voices of the great, mystical desert. The reality of the southwest however is that it is a far less epic, funnier, more broken and more deeply, stubbornly eccentric place than such lofty visions suggest.

The artist who drew me to New Mexico when I first drove west in a Chevy van at age twenty-eight, was George Herriman, the cartoonist of the quirky, irreverent Crazy Kat comic strips of the 1930s. Herriman set his oddball characters in an imaginary expanse of tilting prairies, studded with small, alien trees and with implausibly anthropomorphic rock formations jutting into black or cobalt skies, dotted with merengues and zeppelins of cumulous cloud. For all its implied hugeness, Herriman's desert was also a miniature, vulnerable and profoundly human place.

As we devour and destroy the natural world at every turn, and become ever more entrenched into inflexibly self-righteous cantons of ideology, I see the vulnerability, eccentricity and humor of Herriman's art as a guidepost for my own American painting. You can have the great lions of modernism; I'll take the lovelorn Kat and the angry, brick-throwing mouse, whose fragile, magical landscape was always poised at the very end of the American Dream.

— Christopher Benson