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Studio Series: Douglas Bentham. MacKenzie Art Gallery, 1999

The 1990s have seen an unexpected shift in Douglas Bentham’s approach to welded metal sculpture. Despite his reputation for large-scale steel abstraction, the artist has shown increasing interest in working on a smaller, more personal scale, and with the more traditional materials of brass and bronze. More striking than these changes of medium and format, though, is the new aesthetic embodied in this work.

Timothy Long, MacKenzie Art Gallery

For viewers familiar with Bentham’s previous work, an initial reaction may well be puzzlement at how shapeless, for lack of a better term, the new work seems. The skewed boxes and amorphous canisters offer disjointed surfaces chinked together without regard for a well delineated shape, or so it seems. This is a surprising thing to observe given Bentham’s masterful ability to “draw in space,” a quality so evident in his work over the past three decades. The sculptures effectively deny the formalist dogma of “unity in complexity” — the elegant articulation of individual parts within a coherent whole. Bentham, one must conclude, is after a quite different effect.

To understand the shift in approach, it is helpful to go back to the “Ancestral” series, a group of five sculptural pairs executed in 1993-94 (three are included in this exhibition). These works, each loosely based on the form of a box, still participate in a familiar mode of construction. As the viewer approaches the work, a striking silhouette gradually gives way to a fugue-like interplay of interior and exterior, part and whole. Each piece is a carefully directed spatial drama.

The viewing remains straightforward until one realizes that each pairing is made up of two virtually identical compositions. In each case the “original” version is a welded steel collage with the “reproduction” executed at roughly one-half scale in patinated brass. According to Bentham, the translation of scale and material forces the viewer to deal with the language of abstraction.1 In looking from one piece to the other, the viewer is compelled to mentally reconstruct the work, to verify that, for instance, those two flanges join at just the same angle in both pieces. Through this exercise the viewer unwittingly remakes the piece, mentally mimicking the series of formal choices made by the sculptor. Not only is the horse led to water, but it is drinking before it knows it.

Significantly for subsequent work, the mirroring involved in this series introduces a viewing situation in which the primacy of the whole is questioned. The importance of relating part to part supercedes that of relating part to whole. Shape, as a unifying element, is no longer the ultimate reference point.

Not that this relinquishment of the whole is an end in itself. And not that the subsequent sculptures are utterly shapeless. The words “carapace” and “reliquary” spring to mind when viewing the works. What is pertinent is that they do not invite the viewer to hold the whole with a masterful gaze. Rather, they require a scrambling glance across a broken, glittering surface in an effort to find a way in.

For Bentham, there is a catharsis involved in these works. They are the result of a new intentness at “looking down and in.” The desire is to take people to a “quietness within themselves,” but only after forcing them to abandon an easy resolution of the whole and instead seek the way in. On a personal level, Bentham speaks of taking cancer treatments a few years ago involving sessions of radiation, during which he experienced the sensation of “being inside my body completely.” Similarly these works speak of a felt interiority, a completeness concealed within a broken container.

The sculptures, then, take their shape around a hidden presence. Like armour, they ward off a grasping gaze. Like reliquaries, they enshrine an unseen holy thing, an unnamable beauty within.

Timothy Long

1. I am indebted to Douglas Bentham for several insights in this essay. All quotations are taken from a personal interview, October 6, 1999. Bentham humourously alluded to the mirroring in these works in the title of the exhibition What you see . . . is what you see held at The Gallery, Frances Morrison Branch, Saskatoon Public Library, 1994.