It is a special privilege for the Mendel Art Gallery to present this remarkable exhibition and curatorial view of the recent work of Saskatoon sculptor Douglas Bentham. Represented in the Mendel’s permanent collection and featured in several one-person and group exhibitions organized by the gallery since 1969, Bentham’s distinctive sculptural practice has made a profound contribution to Saskatchewan’s cultural landscape. Through the exhibition resonance and the attendant publication, the Mendel continues to demonstrate its commitment to following the development of Saskatchewan’s most exceptional visual artists, and to the presentation and interpretation of contemporary art of national significance.
Bentham’s art asserts the transformative potential of abstract, constructivist sculpture to express a visual poetry of memory and mortality grounded in the rural vernacular culture of the Canadian prairies. His work is invested with a compelling presence achieved through a synthesis of form and material in which the variants of light and surface texture play a primary role. Sensual, multi-layered and spiritually charged, it offers a rich, contemplative experience, a window into the pathos of the human condition in a post-industrial age of uncertainty.
On behalf of the Mendel Art Gallery, I wish to extend sincere gratitude and appreciation to Douglas Bentham, whose creative vision and commitment are an inspiration. I also wish to thank Associate Curator Dan Ring, who was instrumental in the project’s organization and production, and who has provided an insightful curatorial essay examining the values and concerns embodied in the artist’s work. The sensitive publication design and photography by Associate Curator George Moppett, along with the professionalism and efficiency of the entire gallery staff, have further contributed to the successful realization of this project. Finally, the Mendel gratefully acknowledges the valued support of the Saskatchewan Arts Board and the Canada Council for the Arts.
Director and CEO
Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon
Reprinted with permission
Douglas Bentham resonance
Art never escapes symbolism. It is a question only of the kind.1
Since 1968, Douglas Bentham has produced a complex and diverse body of sculpture informed by both a modernist aesthetic and by narratives of place. Bentham shares an interest with Sir Anthony Caro and David Smith in expressive gesture, and with what Michael Fried called the “syntax” of sculpture.2 His concern with human scale, the expressive potential of the use value of found objects (what could be called their latent social memory) and a conjuring of the light and texture inherent in these objects are also crucial parts of his practice. His goal as a sculptor is to articulate form, mass, light, gesture and movement abstractly through a constructivist approach, one which he describes as “an additive/subtractive approach to collaging.”3 Through a physical and emotional engagement with materials, Bentham inscribes a narrative field reflecting his thoughts on history, culture, place, memory and emotion.
The works in resonance can be seen as a culmination of Bentham’s interests in the expressive and formal possibilities of making sculpture. In the mid-1980s, after twenty years of working mainly with steel, he began to explore the expressive qualities inherent in other materials by incorporating wood, Plexiglas, paper, lead and found metal objects into his work.4 These sculptures are hybrids: a synthesis of modernism’s concern for pure opticality and what Robert Goldwater called the “romanticism of materials.”5 Bentham’s ongoing interest in Picasso’s work led to a revelatory visit in 1985 to the newly-opened Musée Picasso in Paris. There he saw carved wooden figures that Picasso had made at château Boisgeloup around 1931.6 The emotional intensity of these, their verticality, thinness and crude angularity, conveying the impact of the artist’s hand and raw emotion, had a profound effect on him. During this time, Bentham also become more interested in Caro’s use of brass and bronze, and the “quality of the material being illuminated from within.”7 These works, he felt, possessed their own light. Bentham spoke of his new approach as having “…a deeper feel for the characteristics of a material, how it felt in the hand and how it altered what I realised was a rather ingrained sensibility to steel for its strength and rigidity. These new works spoke of softness and malleability, of being ‘squeezed’ through the hands, still sustained by a constuctivist vocabulary, but now more deeply wrought.”8
Throughout his career, Bentham has tended to work in series that have a reciprocal influence upon each other; these can span a number of years and are worked on concurrently. The exhibition resonance includes five series made between 1998 and 2004: The Centurions, Pinnacles, Spires, Totems and Towers. These series share formal and narrative elements: found material reconfigured into abstract form; a painterly concern with light and surface; references to architecture, human scale and emotions; and, an evocation of mortality and the possibility of its transcendence through art. Working on concurrent series implies a scrutiny over time, reworking formal solutions and thematic development, revealing Bentham’s artistic process as a reciprocal weaving back and forth in time where ideas can migrate as revisions are made. Bentham’s way of working “usually begins somewhere in the middle of the sculpture with a simple passage, often starting flat (on the floor or table), then adding to both bottom and top until there emerges a kind of spirit which grounds the work through my own scale and allows my eye, my imagination, to climb. Joining is done by arc welding—mostly with a wire-feed welder, allowing me to wield the welding gun like a paint brush, ‘bridging’ elements as if I were pressing in clay or glue with my thumb. I want the results to look very immediate, ‘put-together’, but with an overall cohesion and unity.”9
Bentham’s art-making is deeply influenced by his engagement with a wide range of contemporary, modern, medieval and aboriginal art. His knowledge of the material culture of western Canada is also crucial to an understanding of his work. He is an inveterate collector of such things as old movie posters, ethnic Saskatchewan furniture, folkart, handmade toys, Navajo weaving and airstream trailers. Like an archaeologist excavating the detritus and artefacts of early-twentieth century prairie life, Bentham collects tools, machinery, metal and decorative brass mouldings, forming an index of a vanished agrarian and industrial culture that he reincorporates into his sculpture. These have great formal and narrative implications for him, evocative objects signifying the passage of time and a consideration of mortality. In a metaphysical sense, the works evoke the transmutation of material things into other states. They should not be construed as a simplistic, nostalgic response to historic Western Canadian culture, but rather as tokens of the connection between beauty and mortality.
he earliest work in the exhibition, End of Day, 1994–2002, has two large vertical sections of welded steel plates bolted together, forming a gate of sorts, with a complex cluster of forms between them situated on the base. While distinct from the other series, it is germinal to them. A number of years ago, Bentham was diagnosed with cancer of the throat for which he underwent extensive and successful treatment. End of Day was informed by this traumatic experience and can be seen as the physical embodiment of a liminal experience: literally, a threshold leading out of or into an altered physical or psychic state. The piece continues Bentham’s interests in cubist form, particularly in the sculpture’s play between positive and negative space and movement of opposing planes, creating spatial tensions between the two towers and central section. The work is subdued but forceful, suggesting transition if not finality. This theme is reinforced by the grey wash finish, which gives it a ghost-like quality evoking the subdued pale prairie light of late fall or winter when the definition between sky and earth becomes indistinct.
The Centurions: Witness, Dreamer, Seeker, Messenger, Watcher and Dark into Light convey introspection and reflection, and are chronologically the first series in this show. The most idiosyncratic and anthropomorphic group, they are closest to a cubist or even surrealist sensibility: stoic figures marking a transition in time between millennia. At once awkward, humorous, archaic and stately, they are “more slowly wrought because they emerge from materials with a more inherent history (wheels, tools, implement parts and such), often bolted together.”10 The age and richly patinated surfaces of recycled clusters of copper tubes from heat exchangers and brass plates with raised cruciform shapes (originally embedded in concrete as supports for old machinery) encourage a symbolic reading. Dark into Light, for example, is constructed of concentric sleeves of brass placed on an early-twentieth century cast bronze chandelier with egg-and-dart and acanthus leaf moulding. Resembling the base of a classical column, this work reinforces a connection to architecture and to the past, a leitmotif of the exhibition. The title references liminality and light as a signifier of knowledge; as one looks into the piece, dramatic contrasts of light and shadow appear, elusive, smouldering off the surfaces of brass and lead solder knifed onto the circle of the innermost cylinder. This flowing, evocative, liquid sense of light imparts an ethereal and otherworldly quality to the work that immerses the viewer in a childlike rapture of imagination.
A concern with light and imaginative thought permeates the exhibition. In the Spires and Towers, for example, titles like The Shape of Things, Point of Repose, A Thousand Years and Enchantment imply a physical and metaphorical space. Uncannily, an abstract concept of unified verticality composed of fractured bits and pieces of metal is conveyed. Literally erratic, but graceful, stacked sections of brass and copper tubes, cylinders and plates telescope in slightly askew ascendancy to an unknown destination, perhaps echoing our collective frailties and uncertainties associated with recent events of world history.
The Totems, reflecting their title, have a figurative presence. They are more planar in construct, with architectural mouldings, metal strapping and reed-like bundles juxtaposed against rich, overlapping plates of brass. Totem X: The Chant, with its contrasts of sheen, textures and forms, can be seen as a physical analogue to a contrapuntal motet. Totem III: The Secret includes cylindrical forms of brass rod and decorative brass tulips enclosed within frames of brass plate. These elements, combined with vessel-like forms, produce subtle transitions of dark to light and a mysterious, organic feel. The title is reinforced by a date and name stamped into a brass ring midway up the work, a hidden reference to the birthdate of a friend’s son, a detail that reinforces the human scale and tender emotion of this sculpture.
In the Pinnacles, Bentham seems to have arrived at a true synthesis of his early work and an exploration of narrative possibilities. The titles, such as Relic of Memory and Marking Time, emphasize memory and mortality. Reminiscent of natural forms or excavated monumental architecture, they are perhaps the most forceful works in the exhibition. Made of welded triangular sections of heavy plate steel, they are less concerned with details than with contrasts of form, light and shadow. Here, movement between form and space creates a graceful repose. These works share an emphasis on verticality and a soaring into space with the Towers and Spires, as well as a gravity and solidity that seek the ground. While they lack the deep lustre of the brass sculptures, they have the subtle, earthy colouration of rust and old flaking paint adhering to steel that reinforces a sense of antiquity. Works of fantasy harmonized by form, they draw the viewer into complex vantage points, creating a sense of precariousness and yet a still balance.
While looking at the sculpture in this exhibition one becomes aware of a symbolic field, inferred inpart by the human scale, architectural references and found objects, and in part by the intensity of emotion that seems to reside in them. While these sculptures might be associated with a trope of heroic modernism, there is an elegiac, even melancholy, tenor to the forms, material and titles that articulates a psychological space alternating between the narrative and the iconic, which confronts the viewer to consider ideas of mortality and resolution. While these sculptures are evidence of Bentham’s commitment to modernism, they also seem to question it. They are intimately linked to the quotidian and the temporal. Where they transcend the particular, they also reify the narratives implicit in the component parts. There is an invocation in this work of the early modernism of Picasso and Brancusi, artists who created disruptive and transgressive images. It seems as if Bentham is looking to the critical fracture of early modernism to enact a catharsis connected to the disruptions of contemporary life; a reconciliation of the allegoric and symbolic with the iconic and formal to convey temporality, mortality and sexuality. The aggressive phallic verticality and references to architecture suggest a defiance of mortality, while the graceful, sensual and evocative forms and light and the inclusion of artefacts simultaneously acknowledge an acceptance of time. Bentham evokes a symbolic field not only of sexuality and transitory experience, but a subdued joy that contradicts the resigned melancholy that comes with acceptance of indifference and resignation.
Modernist architect Louis Kahn reflected that “…art was a kind of oracle, an aura…that preceded the work.”11 Bentham’s approach to his work acknowledges this matrix of influences, and an awareness that his works build on and add to this. This is the true symbolic content of his work, which can recover for the artist, the viewer, and even for the material out of which the sculpture is made, an enhanced life in an object which is more than the sum of its physical parts. Bentham’s work has been considered as suggesting “a rejection of the modernist utopian relationship to industry and industrialization. Where early modernism celebrated the triumph of the industrial age and the heroics of industrial scale, Bentham rightfully suggests that we live in a post-industrial age of decline and dissolution.”12 While there is clearly a reference to the passage of time in these works, I suggest that Bentham, while maintaining the material signifiers of the found objects he uses, intends to inspire a meditative or transcendent experience about origins rather than making an ironic or abject statement. In this way, these works still participate in the modernist aesthetic. However, beyond this, they remind us always of things that are part of our daily life. Between the two poles of these experiences lie the narrative possibilities and resonance of this work.
Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon
Reprinted with permission
1. Catrina Neiman, Ed. David Rabinowitch: Sculptures 1963–1970. Bielefeld: Karl Kerber Verlag, 1987: 278.
2. Michael Fried, quoted by Victoria Baster in Douglas Bentham. Exhibition catalogue. Dunlop Art Gallery, Regina, 1985:11. Fried further comments on Caro’s work that “everything that is worth looking at—except its colour—is in its syntax.”
3. Bentham to author, April 2004.
4. In 1985, at the Dunlop Art Gallery, Regina, Bentham displayed works incorporating the detritus of cast-off foundry tools and metal salvaged from the John East Iron Works in Saskatoon.
5. R. Goldwater. Primitivism in Modern Art. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and Random House, Inc. 1966: 234–35.
6. William Rubin, Ed. Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980: 277.
7. artist statement, Artviews 1 (May/June 1994), newsletter of the Vanderleelie Gallery, Edmonton.
9. ibid. Then, in further describing his approach, Bentham states in note to author, “Finishes are most often guided by a desire to let the material properties come forth: acid-rusting to mild steel; patinating with ferric and copper nitrate on the brass and bronze—plenty of hard-rubbing to bring everything together. Ferrous metals (mild steel) are cut and formed with Oxy-acetylene flame. Non-ferrous metals (brass, bronze, stainless steel) are cut and formed mechanically (saws, cut-off disks, etc.)”
10. Bentham to author, April 2004.
11. Louis Kahn, “1973: Brooklyn, New York,” Perspecta: The Yale Architectural Journal 19, 1982: 90.
12. Bruce Grenville. Douglas Bentham, Robert Christie. Exhibition catalogue. Saskatoon: Mendel Art Gallery, 1991.
Text from Doulgas Bentham resonance catalogue produced by the Mendel Art Gallery 2005