The hawk, wings outstretched, caught in its motion, completes the landscape, and calls the eye. The dirt road leads to the horizon, the dead trees reach heavenwards: all of them point urgently beyond the world we see around us, they serve as tokens, they shape these paintings, they define them, and bear witness to the long pilgrimage journey of the artist who made them, Jason Benjamin, a man seeking to peer beyond the veils and screens of our sensory surrounds.
This quest has been under way for years, and is very much in evidence in Benjamin’s earlier exhibitions, and in his writings: it moves towards its fulfilment at last here, by the simple expedient of confessing itself - these are paintings that take the patterns and the forms of nature as their subject, that dwell on texture and on the play of light, yet see in them signs of order and meaning beyond our senses, beyond the picture’s frame. Benjamin paints away from himself, he paints scenes and objects, he depicts them with a dedicated, studious eye - and yet each one of these depictions is a way-stage on his path towards balance, freedom, self-mastery, each is a progress through a dark vale of silence, abandonment and doubt towards more illuminated terrain.
What can we, as spectators in this theatre, viewers of these works, make with them, take away from them, give to them? What is the exchange this art, so wrapped up in its own processes of discovery and transformation, wishes to make? Benjamin knows himself to be a seeker: he says as much, repeatedly: he surrenders himself to the process of making images, he takes himself back, he concentrates his forces, he lets himself go. Here he is discussing the sequence of works in this exhibition, and his surrender to the act of unconscious painting, of painting as meditation. "All have been worked, edited, abandoned, re-imagined quite extensively." This seems an exceptionally revealing guide to these paintings, to the struggle to make them and to the overcoming they represent: they are works that have travelled through various states of evolution, they have become something their maker half-glimpsed but could not see in his first intention, they have passed through the personality of the painter and been influenced by forces set further back in the world: they are no longer what they were first designed to be.
There are traces of this change of state in the successive items of the "Australian Psalms" series, the sequence that forms the central element in this exhibition. The first "psalm" is, on the face of things, a standard bush landscape, red soil, dry spinifex grass, three parched trees, a hawk in the air, mulga in the distance: all the standard features of the dispassionately recorded outback vista, each one present and correct, each recorded with appropriate precision and finesse - but there is a further element in the picture: light, light from off stage, slanting from above in a sharp diagonal, picking out the dust in the air, lending a tension and a splendour to the scene. So it is, in different ways, with each one of these psalms in paint - works that insistently recall the biblical psalmist’s declaration - "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills."
In the fourth work of the series, a single tree leans brokenly to the right while a diffuse glow from the lower left streams into the image from behind clouds; in the two dusk scenes in the sequence, light’s gleam from beyond the horizon’s line irradiates the world; in the two most complex works in the sequence, "Australian Psalm 5" and the piece titled "One True Vine," the light is at once everywhere and nowhere. This pair of canvases are well considered together, as the completion of the journey Benjamin has embarked on and reached for. In them, light and the natural realm that light illuminates and enlivens stand in balance, the picture is presented with an unemphatic perspective, the whole bush is revealed, and stands in peace. No one view is the right view, no one element is foregrounded, all - sky, birds hovering in flight, the tree trunks, shadows, clouds - all compose themselves into an order that seemed beyond reach in the earlier works.
These paintings are the fruits of a long ordeal Benjamin refers to in his exhibition notes, in which he speaks with self-baring candour of the need to bend the knee for "acceptance from God or Nature or whatever describes for people the force underpinning our hearts and minds’ compass." They are much more than mere landscapes, just as the accompanying suite of still lifes are more than dead nature captured in paint. They bear the impress of an artist caught in a struggle, and using his artistry to achieve victories of the spirit.
The paintings may have the deceptive air of mere bush studies, but they are best conceived as mirrors, in which Benjamin discloses his reflected self - all he contends against and all he wishes for, the bleak, blasted, harsh contours of the inland irradiated by the grace and loveliness of the inland’s light, that light, at once sober and dispassionate, that travellers in both geographical and psychological wildernesses know very well, for it is the clue to the hidden answers we dream of to every question in the world.
Where it’s tempting to think one might feel a sense of closure even satisfaction upon completing an exhibition I feel lost, vulnerable and confused when I’ve packed them up wrapped in bubble benignly waiting for the truck to take them away to face their fate, indefensible. So much time, emotion and energy, every fiber and ounce of compassion I possess to produce something that may endure. A lofty aim as I stare at my empty studio after so many years the reality of art that may live on, hold its own for many more years has ultimately so little to do with ones best intentions and the mountain harder still to summit. That idea seems so distant and so innocent. I’ve come to accept that an entirely different and ill-defined path lays ahead to no fixed destination at all.
Though filled with inspiring books of brilliant artists and writers, scratchings of my own small capacity, several canvases sit blankly as I consider the notion of creation. Of a voice. When I was young I studied and wrote music until in my mid 20’s it became unsustainable and had to painfully choose one or the other. Music remains very close to me all day, every day soundtracking, indeed conducting and directing paths. Some lead nowhere at all and all must be scrapped to begin anew. I humbly aspire in a picture ultimately a sense of inevitability even grace where there is no sign left of the pieces’ author. Painting is for me a lot like music, picking up a guitar despite and in cases to spite ones lack of virtuosity it’s deeply satisfying to find two notes or chords that seem as though they depend on one another. So I’ll pick up a brush, put down a horizon line and try to start again. Or today waiting in a doctor’s office I saw in the corner of the room a vase of flowers leaning into natural light. I can’t readily name the variety but the light they caught created a small theatre of imagination to me. Just a little memory that will percolate for, I know from experience, a long time. Not to re-invent. Not version 2.0. Just another small step along a little path.
Standing on the shoulders of giants:
Words I carry and hold dearly-
Music (Art) is my friend
Understanding, empathetic, forgiving, comforter
A towel to dry tears of sadness
A source of happiness
Liberation and flight
But also a painful thorn
In flesh and blood
As much as you’d like to get away from yourself
You never do
Robert Hughes on Chardin
To see Chardin’s work en masse, in a period stuffed with every kind of jerky innovation, narcissistic blurting and trashy relevance is to be reminded that lucidity, deliberation, probity and calm are still the chief virtues in the art of painting.
Steve Reich on Arvo Part
His music fulfills a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.
W G Sebald from "Austerlitz"
At the most we gaze at the vast edifice in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.
Lucian Freud on John Constable
A path going down and approaching a gate. The way the path goes down to the gate. Constable’s so marvelous at that. You think there’s nothing more moving than a muddy path going down to a gate, it just makes me burst into tears, it’s so incredibly moving. But you can’t help someone burst into tears.
I am essentially a painter of the kind of still life composition that communicates a sense of tranquility and privacy, moods I have valued above all else.
by Edmund Capon
There is a hint of the ominous in Jason Benjamin’s paintings; not so much an air of threat as a sense of the inexorable in those brooding skies and stilled trees. His paintings display a firmness of hand and a certainty of intent. The brushstrokes are neither tentative nor exploratory, they are assured and definitive. It is a proper reflection of the artist’s purpose and imagination, of his journey and his engagement with nature and the landscape. For all the attention and detail in these paintings the one outstanding condition they evoke is scale; those horizons seem to herald an infinity of time and space. This is nature revealed to us with a daunting authority and an almost nostalgic timelessness.
The idea of the landscape as personal territory, a subject for the artist to reveal subjectively, is not new but neither is it predictable. It takes a special kind of association and sensibility to reveal the self through the medium of nature. That sense of the artist fully at ease with the subject is convincing in Jason Benjamin’s work; this is his territory and it is his emotions and instincts that have guided his response and are fulfilled in his paintings. They may indeed be austere in tone and physical in presence but they are exclusively the artist’s domain wherein lies their absolute authority and authenticity. As one would expect of an artist so thoughtfully and emotionally engaged with and cognizant of nature his works are redolent with senses of history and romanticism. These are sturdy poems indeed. But there is lurking in these often solemn yet beautiful landscapes a reminder of our own presence and its consequences. The reduced palette and lowering skies do indeed foster a sense of anxiety perhaps as to whether, in spite of that timeless quality, the landscape we see today will there tomorrow. Undulating roads that lead to some unseen destination, low horizons and gathering clouds in a sunset make for an unsettling combination – beautiful, engaging but nonetheless just slightly disturbing.
Structurally sound and confident Jason Benjamin endows his trees, rocks, clouds even, with the conviction of sculptural forms. Underlying those forms is the firm hand of draughtsmanship and he has acknowledged his admiration for Chinese painting and calligraphy in which the power of the brush line to both define and to express is paramount. Calligraphy strips away the unnecessary to concentrate on the essential; the calligraphic line conveys both meaning in its definition and spirit in its execution – as the great 17th century Chinese painter Daoji noted “the single brushstroke is the source of all things”. .These drawings are in some contrast to the visual power of the paintings; they are quiet and intimate, the lines delicate and the textures melodious. The intimacy of drawing can reveal that sense of enlightenment which can be achieved in the appreciation and contemplation of the most familiar things; how many hours are spent in positive ruminations of Morandi’s dusty bottles or a few well-placed rocks in a Zen garden? Jason’s solemn boulders invite just such a response and provide that same sense of enlightenment. One will never tire of paintings that have such presence and intelligent authority, and drawings that invite thoughtful tranquillity.
There are no people in any of the landscapes in Jason Benjamin’s latest exhibition, Poems in an Elemental Garden. There are hardly even animals, apart from a few birds, and most of the works appear untouched by anything to do with human concerns. Benjamin is drawn to landscapes of monumental vacancy, where nature is most alone. Meticulously rendered, and capturing all four elements – earth, air, wind, fire – the works in this show quietly gesture towards a vastness far beyond their own edges. The stars in We just knew he’d be there remind us of the immensity of the skies; the wash of water in A Clear Mind (2) reminds us of the ocean’s endless roll. The sheer expanse of the works makes us feel dissolved, if only for a moment, by our own insignificance.
We become like the birds drifting across the sky in You’re here with me now. Gone in a moment.
Every one of Benjamin’s landscapes is like this. For all their emptiness, they are saturated with feeling. His genius lies in the way feeling is heightened by being played out against the vast indifference of nature. Each painting is pared back until it perfectly articulates a mood or yearning, whether it’s contemplation or acceptance or the unending desire to be a safe harbour for our children. The feelings his landscapes evoke may soon disappear, each rush of joy or loss fading as quickly as the colour in a sunset sky, but this does nothing to diminish them. Quite the contrary. His works suggest it’s the fleetingness of an emotion that makes it true.
This tension between the everlasting and the quickly vanishing, between the immense and the very small, plays throughout the works in this exhibition, none more so than We just knew he’d be there. Benjamin talks about this painting by referring to the final passage in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Sherriff Bell recalls that after his father died, he had a dream in which the old man rode past him on a horse, cradling fire in a horn, without acknowledging his son. The old man rode off “in all that dark and all that cold” and Sherriff Bell knew that whenever he, the son, got where he was going, his father would already be there and he would have lit a fire. We all long to already be where our children are heading, ready to warm them when they arrive. For our children, more than anyone, we want to be eternal: the fire on a hill that never goes out. The fact that we are as evanescent as a flame is both a tragedy and the best reason to clutch our children close.
Benjamin hasn’t painted still lifes for five years but they fit perfectly here. What could be more fleeting than a peony in late bloom and the flap of a butterfly’s wing? The landscapes play with our sense of time, but the still lifes take this notion and dial the volume up to high. Drenched in glorious light, these are works that luxuriate in their temporality. They are operatic in the extravagance of their emotion and their refusal of the strictures of good taste. Benjamin’s flowers are like the soprano bursting into full voice at the climax of her performance. She may be a little overdressed, perhaps the storyline is even a little cheesy, but her voice spears straight into the heart of everyone listening. In that moment, she is truly magnificent.
It’s as much as we can ask for.
Since European settlement, the Australian landscape has slowly stunned and lulled its new inhabitants into respecting its diverse enormity. We have seceded to its intoxicating vistas, allowed it to prevail, and found succour in its ability to sustain us. The extremes of geological landforms are paralleled only by the climate that lashes and denudes it. The dry heat of the plains can twist into a maelstrom of rain, thunder and lightning and then as quickly burst forth into an exuberant opposite.
Landscape contains us, supports us and moulds us. When surrounded by the enveloping landscape we return to a psychological realm in which our internal narrative is amplified. The landscape ultimately belittles us and reminds us of our place in the world. Much landscape painting is devoid of human presence, its surface not yet tainted by the mark of humanity. For some the human figure remains at the margins, overwhelmed by the physical environment, irrelevant against the presence of nature. Colonial painters produced tightly rendered approximations of the newly glimpsed landscape, styled in obsessive detail, honed for an inquisitive audience. Their wistful charms were an attempt to represent the new environment by rendering what lay before them, infusing it with the intoxicant of nostalgia. Painters grappled with the reality of the Australian landscape, pining for it to be more familiar, more European.
As an Australian art emerged, the landscape has been presented as the last great frontier, a theatre of the sublime, and an unforgiving, malevolent paradise on which to project dreams of utopia. It has proved a resilient and fertile muse for artists of all stripes. Yet all are dealt the challenge of expressing something more than merely looking at the landscape, somehow imbuing the artwork with the experience of being in it and altered by it. Yet why do artists choose to depict the physical ground, when so much of our horizontal picture plane is air, sky, and biosphere? Between the ground and the sky, a kaleidoscope of oxygen and water buffers us from the blackness of space. Painters describe the physical characteristics of the ground, and how the atmosphere is presented by the concoction of the weather suspended above it. They aim for transference of what is experienced into a two dimensional approximation of the physical: the translation from reality to metaphor. Change occurs through this process and the artist’s perspective is blended with the depiction of the subject.
Through drawing, painting, and printmaking Jason Benjamin describes the dramatic vistas of the Australian landscape, its interior, its edges, and its inhabitants. His eyes ponder the flora and fauna that dwell in its corners, its expanses and its day / night state. Benjamin highlights the incongruity of the Australian landscape and the idiosyncrasies and variations it supports. The textures of his landscapes are rendered in minute brushstrokes amassed until form takes hold and a luminous presence stares back. Benjamin paints images of the Australian landscape that are articulated via his emotional response. His images appear on the edge of consciousness, a hazy, woozy experience. Not just what is observed but what is experienced. Virtues conflates background and foreground, the rock formations mirroring the monolith-like clouds that float above. Benjamin describes the heat of the living world.
Benjamin articulates the liminal at the heart of landscape painting. The process of rendering what is seen into what is represented, an approximation of the real, but mixed with the intangible. Benjamin’s brush renders the landscape as if squashed into the picture frame, slightly plumped but glowing with the flush of life. His stylistic antecedents (John Glover, Nicholas Chevalier, Eugene von Guerard, Louis Buvelot, James Howes Carse and John Lewin) laid the pictorial foundations of the art of the new colony. Their oeuvre describing the physical qualities of the landscape squeezed through a temperament that pined for an altogether different place. Benjamin’s sensibility is wholly immured to the post-terra nullius Australian landscape. He is familiar with its tropes, its prickly history, but is drawn to its deep meditative wholeness. The landscape has birthed a painter such as Jason Benjamin – it is a home not a replacement for what has been abandoned.
Benjamin’s work reveals the influence of chinoiserie, minimalism, abstraction, and photography subtly infiltrating the work. The range of painterly moments created by the artist is an ever running conversation about landscape. Everyone is Here examines the Hay plains and the Monaro, the land on which the Ngarigo people of the tablelands and the Wolgalu group from the high country lived in pre-colonial times. It is also the country on which Rosalie Gascoigne once strode. Like Gascoigne, Benjamin revels in the textures of the landscape - the deeply riven surface of the plains, the grasses, the stands of trees, and the road. His sustained ruminations on landscape cut through the visual clutter of the world, the synthetic and the unnatural.
Benjamin’s observations culminate in an intensity of colour and form verging on a hyper-real representation of the landscape. But what if the landscape is hyper-real? The moment our breath is taken away by the light hitting the landscape in such a way that it feels unnatural or synthetic - the sickly sweet colours, the elaborate curlicues of clouds. What’s going to happen to us? offers an intense orange sunset appearing in the space between darkness and day - a transitional state, an ephemeral moment. The colour and forms of the landscape are highlighted via the painters feeling for the materials, a communion with colour rendered by the arc of the body; the muscular collaboration with the ingredients. The repeated brush strokes rendered as the skin of the object, sculpted through deep knowledge of form and structure. Each brushstroke describes the surface of each element in the landscape – painted as whole and emanating the inner warmth of life. The intensity of the physical atmosphere of the image, the heat, the cold, the dryness rendered with heart and fine motor. The repeated brushstrokes bringing the object to life, giving it form, presenting it to us as a living and breathing entity.
The abruptness of the Australian landscape is apparent on even the flattest of ground, the jutted rocks that suggest the cold hard rocky interior below the surface of the earth. Others offer dry, bleached eucalypts resembling the stony outcrops of a cold lunar wilderness. Abbey captures the collision of morning as the moist night disperses its residue and the day comes into being - the still slowly breathing landscape stretching and yawning.
The Waiting Garden - a landscape arranged as if for a picture. The placement of textures shapes and forms, sitting together like arrangements. The hard stony ground mirrored in the soft fluffy sky. She’s searching for you too - sending thoughts into the void of the scrubby edges of the landscape swept aside for the roads that break through it, Benjamin squeezes out his feelings and mixes it with pigment. The atmosphere as a pre-space, lunar inflected - the gloaming lit by the sun of day into the moon of night. The series Australian Ghosts further offers the denuded forms of the ash-grey, sun bleached landscape rendered in graphite on shards of coarse handmade paper. Like an infrared photograph, his spare drawings reveal the crepuscular moment when the earth is transformed into its nocturnal self. The fragments of paper present enormity through the minimal.
Benjamin’s works play with the ways we experience the landscape and the subconscious vistas we each harbour in our mind’s eye. Within Benjamin’s images is the feeling that they depict the landscape before it has become altered by human presence. His finely honed style of rendering the hills, rocks and trees as living breathing forms amid the undulating tabula rasa of the earth suggests deep respect in awe of nature. Each element in the picture plane is a 3-dimensional object, taking up its own space but crucial to the overall composition. The trees, ever so slightly swollen, cling to the earth long after the moisture has left them, transformed into their own headstones - allowing the narrative of the land to continue, the colours altered by the sun’s particular intensity. His works are at once descriptions as well as renderings of subtle ambience. They suggest the moment we find our self staring into space, looking past the physical realm and into the landscape of thought. The soft fuzzy visage of the landscape frames this psychological space, threatening to burst through and once again return to the here and now. Benjamin’s paintings are bright, intense openings into the diverse landscape that supports us. The artist renders the large empty voids that separate the conglomerations of human activity (cities and towns) and the small, fragile inhabitants living therein. The spaces between activity, resting, ruminating on its place within the whole. Benjamin’s titles offer an inner monologue, a concurrent articulation of the landscape and the atmosphere suggestive of the artist’s temperament. Everyone is here acknowledges human presence, through its absence and through the presentation of the landscape, its inhabitants and its details.
The painting is a place that the painter visits. The time spent in its physical presence as it is hewn from the painting elements, the mental space that the materials eke from the artist’s attention, and the urgency of its articulation. Benjamin allows us to see the landscape the way he sees and feels it. The painting becomes a place that the viewer visits whilst the artist holds our hand. We see the cold, hard old ground, like the body, the atmosphere like the fluid around the brain, the chemicals in the gut, and a landscape of memory. Benjamin’s constructions are like songs – a sustained articulation of feelings expressed in non-verbal ways. The intensity of colour, the crescendo’s of form, the sombre passages of stillness and quietude. Benjamin’s works lull us into a communion with the humble materials before us that he has transformed - an evocation of how the artist feels about the world, and how we may move forward slightly altered by what we have seen.
Adelaide, September 2011.
Michelangelo, when appraising the work of painters from Northern Europe, is said to have quipped that, to him, their work was a kind of second rate daubing, as it was driven by the observation of the landscape and objects, rather than an idea of such things within a wider conceptual framework. Many Flemish artists of Northern Europe were spectacularly skilful technicians and were deeply engaged in an increasingly direct account of the visual experience, particularly the fall of light and reflection, while Southern artists explored the theoretical construction of space through Perspective. Nevertheless in the works of say Bosch, Durer or Breughel there is present an allusion to ideas about morality, or beauty, or orders in nature that reveal a grander scheme through inventiveness which distills the observed world and aligns them with the “Southern” Renaissance and Mannerist schools of thought.
Michelangelo Buonarotti was referring to a conceptual divide in the making of art that is as alive today as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries. Little did he know that two hundred years later painting would address the direct perceptual experience of nature through the Barbizon school, the Impressionists and on to the Coldstream school in London.
A great deal of energy is expended in contemporary practice and theory asserting that the visual arts have transcended the perceptual account of the world in order to address a cultural/political critique. To many people, both audience and practitioners, the experience of visual arts today is either hindered or liberated by the material form of a work and the notion of skill in the “hands” of the visual artist. My initial encounter with the works of Jason Benjamin gave rise to elements of the preceding narrative. I was consistently aware of the landscape as a metaphor, an invention. Benjamin gathers references from field trips, which he then stores to give impressions time to earn their place in paintings and drawings. His images appear to arrive fully formed which imbues the surfaces of the works with a Classical smoothness and attention to detail reminiscent of the work of Eugene Von Guerard in the Australian context. But this is where things divide. Where Von Guerard recorded the landscape of Australia with a forensic eye for botanic accuracy, Benjamin records the apprehended spirit of place. It is interesting here to remember the “Colonial” painters like Thomas Wainewright and Conrad Martens as examples of artists who depicted the Australian landscape through a European filter in order to express more than likeness. They saw the landscape as a model of Arcadia, a perfect ,exotic place. Benjamins’ work is steeped in tradition but not bound by it, he chooses the deliberate, honed appearance of the images as the aperture through which we are invited into the theatre of silence, where the horizon is a turning not an end. I am here reminded of the paintings of Giorgio DeChirico, which utilize the horizon like the stage meeting the cyclorama in a theatre. Not only that but how surprisingly thin and smooth DeChiricos’ paint handling was as it reveals the drawn line of thought and finally the reordered world of the dream, the uncertainty of the poet.
Jason Benjamin is not tentative but extraordinarily sensitive to small breezes and pressure shifts in his world. A hill is not just a hill, it becomes a slight heaving in the skin of the earth. A rock is revealed because the earth wore away, was eroded and in being visible, becomes more than geological nuance, it suggests big forces and hidden structures . The terrain as a whole is imbued with the a visual language which addresses Benjamins’ seismic response to not only place as site but place as the “melancholic” reverie where the slightest tremor of emotion, triumph, longing and loss is registered in a wave of grass or the soaring chorus of sky.
The drawings are small, pencil on washed, scrubbed, patinated heavy rag papers. The graphite pencil is used like an etching needle. It does not just mark the paper it incises the surface leaving indentations as though the graphite isn’t enough. Even the material of the drawing is a microscopic landscape of valleys and hills, which coalesce to form an image even more dream-like than the paintings. The artist Paul Delveaux comes to mind with his haunting invented figures in set pieces of theatre.
The exhibition at BMGArt in Adelaide was titled “I Thought You Would Always Be Here”, a poignant musing on mutability in the title work in which a tree embodies not just likeness but all that is impermanent, transient. There is a wonderful tension here between the almost breathless stasis of the images and the collective rumbling energy of the tectonic shifts and grinds being apprehended by Benjamins’ radar. The title also addresses appearances, how things appear to be but are not , as in a tree which looks massive and permanent but is not. A broken wire in a fence becomes an escape , the rupture of a border, or is it just a broken wire?
Jason Benjamin is made of many parts but I think he has two major polarities, the Romantic/Melancholic and the Classicist/Idealist and as long as this binary is within him he has a great deal of great work to do.
Adelaide, September 2011.
A minimalist spirit has crept into Jason Benjamin’s paintings. In this new body of work, his palette is more restricted and his subjects more spartan. This distillation of space and light invites contemplation, and while loosely based on the austere environment of the Monaro region with its vast yellowing grasslands and granite outcrops, Benjamin’s landscapes are rarely literal or precise. While eucalypts thwarted by farming, fog bound vistas and bruised skies may invite an ecological reading, Benjamin eschews the didactic turn in landscape painting. Instead, he offers the viewer visions that approximate psalms in painted form.
Titles such as Song of thanks and Steps of the faithful underscore this sacred dimension. Made in threes with each painting divisible by the next (in terms of scale), Benjamin has carefully composed a numinous experience for his viewers. He cites a fascination with Chinese landscape traditions, the influence of which can be detected in his calligraphic gum trees, and confesses his love for the elegant minimalism of Canadian born Agnes Martin and the estranged melodies of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Like Martin and Pärt, he is committed to refining his idiom by stripping away all unnecessary elements and submitting to simplicity. This reduction is for Benjamin a brave revelation of vulnerability, one which has lead to a new found serenity, for both the artist and his paintings.
There are certain landscapes that appeal to an individual’s sensibility. It might be the Far North and the torpor of the tropics, it could be a mountain range with its vertiginous pleasures – or a desert region and its unworldly stillness – or one of the country’s rare historic sites with that sense of ‘time passing.’
Of course, there are many more examples – but the point is, I think we can all identify such places and quietly celebrate their existence.
What’s on display tonight is the evidence of Jason Benjamin’s passionate engagement with a region – or should I say, regions – that being the Hay Plain and the Monaro in Southern NSW. Both these sites fired the artist’s imagination. Over time, you could say they penetrated his psyche. A special kind of association was established, inspiring a convincing body of work – with the intriguing title: Everyone Is Here!
So where does that lead us? Well, I believe it’s a visceral celebration of the artist’s creative reverie. Through his poetic instincts, and acute observation, Benjamin has re-imagined the landscape. He looks into the landscape and sees what’s there, and - disturbingly, what’s not there, As Edmund Capon noted, ‘Lurking in these, often solemn yet beautiful landscapes is a reminder of our own presence and its consequences.’
Many of us live over the Great Divide or in the Murray Darling Basin, and have witnessed first-hand the devastating long term effects of dry land salinity. Of course, we know now the massive removal of stands of River Red Gum altered the water table – an unwanted inheritance. What remains of these Red Gums appears as a spectral presence in a number of Jason’s paintings.
Looking at these works, one can sense a complex narrative of loss and acceptance taking shape. What the artist discovered – is that all natural elements are symbolic of spiritual states – all appearances in nature correspond to certain states of mind.
As Jason puts it: ‘The poetry and beauty is there if you chose to see it.’
For Whiteley, it was the boulder-strewn paddocks and creek beds that inspired a series of works reminiscent of a Zen garden – and I sense the Monaro region has had a similar impact on Jason – particularly, in works such as The Waiting Garden. The Zen garden, with its deceptively simple elements can be seen a manifestation of enlightenment - living proof that one can attain this elusive state of mind. Benjamin’s paintings are a convincing response to that idea.
Then we have the intimate drawings which are a counterpoint to the power and presence of the paintings: Owl, Galah, Bandicoot, Duck and more are drawn with an acute tenderness and attention to detail. One gets the feeling these creatures are real and are with us, emphasising the fact: Everyone Is Here.
In its essence Everyone Is Here is a distillation of deep-felt encounters around the Monaro region and the Hay Plain of NSW.
What we see assembled here this evening is a pared-back vision of light and space. In fact, the defining factor in the success of these works is the artist’s apprehension of the defining light that illuminates these regions. What emerged from the solitude of the studio is an exceptionally fine body of work – an authoritative affirmation of a landscape tradition that lies at the heart of the Australian experience.
It now gives me great pleasure to declare the exhibition open!
Gavin Wilson Exhibition Curator 14 March 2014
Sydney, October, 2011
You can stare at the grass in Jason Benjamin’s landscapes for a very long time. It’s so minutely rendered, the wide expanse of it built up one deeply-felt blade at a time, that it draws your eye in ever further. The process of painting it is painstaking and laborious. For Benjamin, it’s a kind of worship.
A little while back, Benjamin sent me a quote from one of his favourite writers, Cormac McCarthy. It ran:
"…he said goodbye to her in Spanish and then turned and put on his hat and turned his wet face to the wind and for a moment he held out his hands as if to steady himself or as if to bless the ground there or perhaps as if to slow the world that was rushing away and seemed to care nothing for the old or the young or rich or poor or dark or pale or he or she. Nothing for their struggles, nothing for their names. Nothing for the living or the dead."
The quote was, Benjamin said, always with him as he painted. That’s when I understood what his grass was for. One of the singular traits of Benjamin’s landscapes is that the horizons are always low. His landscapes are, mostly, sky. And sky, even as you look at it, is always changing. Whatever is written there – and it can be anything from ecstasy to desolation, hope to regret – it will pass. Against that, his grass is like McCarthy’s steadying hands. That thin strip across the bottom of his paintings is our futile grab at permanence set against the world’s fleetingness and lack of care. It’s the anchor we cast hopefully into the dark, knowing it will never hold. It’s the things we know to be true, balanced against the things we only wish for. It accounts, I think, for much of the sadness in his work.
Every one of Benjamin’s landscapes quivers with emotion. Sometimes it’s sadness, sometimes it’s boundless joy. His landscapes use a spare vocabulary: the same trees, either lush or leafless; roads; wire fences; rocks; that obsessive grass; and birds – always birds. There haven’t been people in them for a long time, and yet we are, all of us, implicitly there. For Benjamin, as for McCarthy, landscape is never just landscape. It’s the screen on which emotion is distilled and made grander. It’s the roiling of our insides projected onto the skin of the world. Love, loss, gratitude, wonderment: he does not shy away from any of these. Our rawest emotions are there in every tree, in every slant of light. In the majesty of the non-human, Benjamin shows us to ourselves.
The invitation in his paintings is not to think, but to feel. It’s an invitation to empathise, in an almost painfully open-hearted way, that necessitates a bypassing of the mind. It reminds me of another line in McCarthy. At the beginning of All the Pretty Horses, the same book that the above quote comes from, the great American author tells us that the most important quality in his main character, John Grady Cole, is that he is ardenthearted. “All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenthearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise.”
Benjamin’s paintings are nothing if not ardenthearted. This is, of course, unfashionable. The mood of our times is cool, its default pose detached. Against this, the ecstasy of a picture like I can see you waiting there for me can seem almost kitsch, its rays of light too radiant. McCarthy, too, has been accused of veering into pulp. But for both men, it’s not kitsch or pulpy: it’s simply a refusal to stand outside an emotion and look in. To be tasteful is always, in some way, to step back from emotion. Taste is never ardenthearted. As Benjamin has said before, “fuck taste.” It is impossible to stand in front of I can see you waiting there for me, and not recognize in it the essence of being most vibrantly, most fleetingly alive.
To me, this latest show speaks most poignantly of the passing of time. Looking at The Waiting Garden, or Wisdom and Happiness, I feel my heart hitch, in a little flutter of panic, at the impermanence of it all. But I kept looking and soon my eye fell on the birds. Tiny and black, they are neither of grass nor sky, free to soar between them. In The Waiting Garden a lone bird flies straight across the canvas, a spear of calm. In Wisdom and Happiness a few birds, shrunk to little more than dots, fly straight into the clouds, their course already struck, their fate now nothing but a consequence. Time still passed. Skies still raced. But my heart stilled because for the birds, at least, this was nothing to be scared of. This new show heeds our longing to snatch from time moments and meanings that are eternal. Yet it also recognizes that the only things that really matter are fleeting.
There is a country, wide and empty, running from Texas into the scorched plains of Mexico, which Cormac McCarthy has made his own. His words have given it a life as real as the white gypsum hills, and this country lives in imaginations around the world. I wonder if there will ever be Jason Benjamin country. It exists already in my mind, when I see a shaft of light fall a certain way, and the landscape around me seems to crack open, just for an instant, with feeling. Painters including Arthur Boyd, Arthur Streeton and Fred Williams changed the way we Australians saw the land around us. Benjamin is changing it again. He is making it the deepest part of ourselves.
Sydney, October, 2011
Jason Benjamin climbs out of his swag and wastes no time getting to work. The light is right, bleached in that post-dawn way that casts strange and surreal shadows. During the course of the long solo day those shadows creep across the plains, shuddering as the clouds distort the light, which eventually succumbs to a blaze of blood-red glory.
The artist doesn’t move a great deal on these sojourns. He doesn’t have to. The world moves for him, playing its tricks of hue within the natural chiaroscuro of the granite outcrops of the Monaro region of South Eastern New South Wales.
The last time I had seen Benjamin was over ten years ago on an extraordinary trip to Lake Eyre and the Australian centre with such fellow artists as Tim Storrier, David Larwill and Rodney Pople. We were all drunk on the landscape (and, to be honest, drunk in that other way that forms amazing camaraderie). Benjamin’s almost obsessive love of the landscape was in abundant proof, but back then, it was captured via the lens of his camera before being rendered onto canvas back in his Sydney studio.
Things have changed over that decade. Benjamin himself has taken on a more rugged and weathered appearance and his work has done the same. He now resembles a character from the novels of one of his favourite authors, Cormac McCarthy and, again, his work has taken on some of the harsh flavor of McCarthy’s writing. Gone is the more European palette of earlier works, replaced by the more stark hues of the Australian outback, as can be so hauntingly witnessed in the fiery dust-storm of such paintings as Now And Forever – fire.
Robert Hughes once famously – and accurately – commented that when Europeans discovered America they discovered freedom, but when Europeans made it to the Antipodes they found a prison. Something of this bleak assessment has found its way into the core of the history of Australian art, from the doom-laden works of John Glover in the Colonial days to the bleak surrealist impulses of the Angry Penguins through to the more contemporary sense of the apocalyptic seen in the works of Peter Booth and Philip Hunter and in George Miller’s Mad Max.
Beneath Benjamin’s rain-laden thunderclouds lies the cruel irony of the land of drought. The eucalypts stand as talismans of deprivation, the granite boulders the headstones of a dying world. Benjamin captures the strange tricks of light that are seen nowhere else on the planet, the way that sunlight carves through the clouds creating an eerie sense of simultaneous movement and stillness, the gentle eddies of air captured by the soaring eagles that so often appear stationary mid-air, their cries piercing the sky.
Best known for his monumental works on canvas, it is Jason Benjamin’s rarely exhibited and extremely intimate works on paper that reveal a technical adroitness all too rarely seen in contemporary Australian art.
A part of this revelation stems from Benjamin being invited to undertake an ongoing artists’ residency at The Australian Museum in Sydney. Sitting in the Director’s office she asked him what he might like to tackle. Benjamin had no idea. And in that moment of blankness he spied upon her walls the encased taxidermed bird life. There was the mission; to bring these literally stuffed animals to life and the result recalls the fastidious line work of Albrecht Dürer.
But Benjamin did not choose his creatures at random, specifically selecting only the creatures that inhabit the locale where the paintings reside. “Portraits of the residents so to speak,” Benjamin says.
The resurrectionist in Benjamin went to work. The dull glass eyes took on character and mischievousness and, at times, malevolence as can be clearly seen in the Yes said the Sky series. The dull feathers and marsupial fur took on a glisten and shine. They came alive.
Something similar was occurring in the landscape. Where once the imagery had been caught on film, it was now captured by the lead of the pencil, in the process torturing the surface of the paper until the works take on the look and feel of imagery from a far previous century. Indeed, they take on something of the hue and texture of a prose description of the Australian landscape by George W. Lambert (1873-1930):
“The sun is down and ‘Micalago’ is at rest
Like Chinese silk of faded gold, the grass…”
Australian Ghosts recall ancient parchment, indeed, like silk of faded gold and perhaps not surprisingly another influence on Benjamin was the Australian artist Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999) who Benjamin spent time with and painted a portrait of in 1997. The two artists could not be more different in technical approach, but both endeavor, and succeed in capturing the willful atmospherics of the land.
In the last ten years it seems that Jason Benjamin has travelled the extremes, physically, psychologically and aesthetically. This is, without a doubt, his most powerful body of work to date. The future beckons, harsh, unruly but without doubt beatifically.
All Content © 2016 Jason Benjamin