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“Spanish Voices” Exhibition Review

The recent exhibition of Douglas Bentham’s elegant new series, “Spanish Voices,” at Toronto’s Moore Gallery, affirms the senior Saskatchewan artist’s unwavering commitment to the making of rigorous, evocative, abstract sculptures informed by his deep understanding of the radical innovations of early- and mid-20th-century European and North American art. These subtle, compelling works courageously confront the legacies of various modernisms, ranging from the persuasive examples of Picasso’s early cubist collages and wall constructions to the seminal lessons of David Smith’s resonant sculptures of the early ’50s, and Caro’s gravity defying welded steel improvisations.

Ron Shuebrook, Border Crossings
Fall 2012

All these predecessors were catalysts for a forthright mode of making, while offering models for achieving internal, formal coherence. Bentham has successfully integrated these and other influences into his own expressive vocabulary, which embodies the integrity of his contemporary vision.

His career began in 1969 with a solo exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, as well as group exhibitions at both the Mendel and the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina. That same year he graduated with a BFA from the University of Saskatchewan. For more than 40 years, he has shown consistently and been awarded major public commissions.

In the “Spanish Voices” series Bentham displays a finely-honed capacity for activating literally flat, yet painterly planes, open spaces, linear passages and volumetric solids. Various, often mysterious, industrial fragments appear to have been found, selected and inserted into evolving structures that may be comprised of other pre-existing materials: fasteners, rebars, geometric solids and even actual hand tools. In addition, brass sheets have been cut, and sometimes folded, into defined, curvilinear and rectangular shapes that have been painted with a solution of cupric nitrate under high heat.

This process transforms the surface into an evocative pale bluegreen, an intrinsic aspect of the component, which is inserted into the developing composition of linear members, found objects and geometric forms. These various elements are welded into an armature that has then been galvanized to achieve greater visual unity. The repetitions of similar shapes and contours, compatible surface textures, parallel planes, colour affinities and discrete welds give coherent resolution to each sculpture.

Fabricated directly in patinated brass and galvanized iron and steel, possessing an eloquent beauty of subtle colour and formal clarity, these modestly-scaled sculptures are upright, mostly floor-dependent inventions with a formal fluency that rewards attentive engagement. Each of the titles in the series refers to a significant Spanish artist, Bentham candidly declaring his admiration for Picasso, Miró, Dalí, Goya, Gaudí, Velázquez, and the Mexicanborn Kahlo.

Song for Picasso, 2012, is comprised of galvanized elements including a single, stable, rectangular mass, pieces of curved or straight rods, and two thick, inwardly curving, planar sections, acknowledging the horizontality of the floor and emphasizing a physical and optical stability. Additionally, these vertical elements rise upward and evoke a figurative presence that is akin to the front and back of the human body.

Simultaneously, the juxtaposing of blue-green planes against the sheen of galvanized components casts a silvery light and creates a metaphoric opposition, as between nature and culture, hinting at external references derived from Bentham’s travels in Spain.

An almost musical sequence of alternating curves, diagonal tensions and rhythmic contours reinforces the interplay between the coloured planes and linear gestures. The resultant sense of orderly movement and structure alternates between visual velocity and moments of stasis in accordance with the specificity of each work.

An insistent verticality and bodily reference contrast uncannily with elements resembling the detritus of fading industries, conjuring an ambiguous topography and fictive landscape, melding into an aesthetically causal whole. In the airy and inventive Dream for Dali, 2012, Bentham reminds us that poignant, sometimes great art can rise from the depths of the irrational and the unconscious when rigorously distilled into the allegorical or mythic. A number of recent museum surveys and gallery exhibitions indicate a renewed interest in the psychically charged terrains of Surrealism and post-modern pictorial hybridity. Bentham’s reference to Dalí evidences the potency of unfamiliar and surprising juxtapositions, as that master of surrealist illusion had done in the best of his early canvases. However, Bentham resists any nod toward illusionism or overt representation. Instead, he expertly explores the plastic tensions to be achieved through a daring, asymmetrical composition of linear enclosures, interacting with strategically distributed coloured planes. When viewed frontally, a grouping of lit and shadowed planes and masses anchors one side of the structure, visually and physically, in relation to the floor.

Attention is also drawn to painterly, blue-green planes, some of which have a curved edge, while others are shifting, solid rectangles. In turn, these patinated forms are fixed within the linear configuration comprised of iron and steel pieces from different sources. The graceful curves of an actual wrench contrast with firm, straight, fabricated forms, while twisted rods, toothy planes and balanced referential units create a directional tension encouraging a perceptual reading from part to part to whole. This piece offers a highly pictorial experience defying the physical properties of the materials and its sculptural construction in an arresting aesthetic wholeness. Almost narrative in its evocations, this work contrasts an extraordinary number of materials, implied subjects and processes that present endless opportunities for interpretation.

It is evident to any regular gallery visitor that ambitious abstract metal sculpture is rarely exhibited these days in Toronto. Such serious sculpture is clearly an endangered, nearly extinct order of practice. However, Bentham has persevered with his personal inquiries despite the attendant challenges, and his disciplined and inspiring new sculptures confirm the continuing viability of rigorous abstraction. These vital, complex and fresh works are clearly the creations of a mature artist of persistent conviction and enormous talent.

“Spanish Voices” was exhibited at Moore Gallery Ltd., Toronto, from March 9 to April 7, 2012.

Ron Shuebrook is an internationally exhibiting painter, writer, art educator and consultant who now lives in Guelph, Ontario.

Published in Border Crossings magazine, Fall 2012.