Galerie Nathalie Obadia is very pleased to present Pas à pas, French artist Carole Benzaken’s ninth exhibition, after Là-bas... Toi, in 2019, which took place at both Parisian galleries.
Winner of the Marcel Duchamp prize in 2004, Carole Benzaken has developed, over the last thirty or so years, a pictorial practice that expands beyond its own limits, in different directions, encompassing drawing, architecture, works on glass or video. The image, as it is perceived, assimilated and represented, is at the heart of her approach, which is, above all else, that of a painter fascinated by the resourcefulness of her medium and by its incredible flexibility. The exhibition Pas à pas presents a group of recent works from her series Au réveil, il était midi, Magnolias and a new one, Skin Screen, each articulated around a common syntax, which grows richer by the year. Between figuration and abstraction, freedom and control, exploration of matter and imagination, painting deploys itself with deliberate porousness.
Following Portées d’ombres, the series Skin Screen refers to the body and to drawing through abstraction and painting. Carole Benzaken treats the surface of the painting as a skin: the consistency of the canvas, to which she bestows substance by using oil stick, suggests a tactile pleasure, while the combination of deep black and this granular texture recalls charcoal. For the artist, it is about two things: “a desire to give substance” and a wish to reassert, through painting, her love of drawing, a practice that she considers a place of “perfect incompleteness.”
Heavily inspired by Georges Seurat’s pointillism and luminous vibrations, Carole Benzaken couples this quasi graphic treatment of painting with an ink underpainting that resembles a body of water whose palette is limitless. From all these layers and painting methods emerge anthropomorphic or animalistic silhouettes—some of the small formats resemble details of these beings. This discreet resurgence of figuration brings to mind the idea of membrane, leather, tannery. But the skin also incarnates a protection, a screen. Playing on contrasts and polysemy, Carole Benzaken turns to a sort of mosaic that rationalizes the interlocking layers that melt into each other—a motif common to all her latest research and that refers to numerical interfaces.
Moreover, several recent paintings continue a series begun in 2018, Au réveil, il était midi, where optical illusions and pictorial deconstruction go hand in hand. Enchanting visions of Florentine gardens, fields of olive trees, sun-soaked Italian villages: these works offer a veritable myriad of hues, each in its own chromatic “season.” This opalescence is clearly a nod to the Impressionists or to Cézanne, especially since the desire to fix an evanescent sensation, that of an awakening, mystified by the summer heat, is at the heart of this pictorial project.
The artist manages to translate this numbness by multiplying the strata of paint, so as to create a sort of mineral sedimentation. After a first layer in ink, she opacifies the watery surface by working in acrylic, then dabs white paint to mask a few of the painted zones, while letting a few areas “perspire” color. In the midst of a somewhat controlled space, Carole Benzaken creates the conditions for a fortuitous and playful meeting of elements: the ink that spreads at random into puddles or narrow rivulets; the mysterious chemistry of colors that repel or unify, becoming infinite nuances; the air trapped in the paint and materialized in the shape of fine bubbles; the white that never stays purely white except when there is an excess of it. Careful to avoid slipping into pure visual seduction, the artist again counterbalances this sheer abandon with a black frame that defines and divides these blurry, crumpled landscapes. The frame operates a real distancing: it also represents contemporary screens that filter and make unattainable the desired image—and, in a certain way, the representation that abuts against itself.
This play on chance and control, delight and frustration also exists in the Magnolias series, on which Carole Benzaken has been working since 2013, where the glass plays the role of frame, window and separation. Several sheets of tracing paper, drawn in China ink and colored pencils, are superimposed between two panes of glass. The whole is then submitted to the uncertainties of baking, which occasionally brings out unexpected hues. These floral trees with their multiple ramifications are thus literally trapped in the glass, frozen. A natural extension of tracing paper, whose opalescent effect it increases tenfold, glass contrasts with the warm colors and the sensuality of ink that naturally dilutes itself. Transparency welcomes light—the very subject and matter of these works—underlined by black branches that evoke calligraphy. This alchemy of glass and color connects the different series presented in this exhibition: as vectors of fusion, the Magnolias punctuate the space with all their radiance.
Each of Carole Benzaken’s works, characterized by its unique temperament, makes the pure pleasure of painting tangible: a phenomenon of the formless that takes form, the intimate life of color, the sudden emergence of light, accidents of drawing, the sensation of texture. But this visual complexity, wisely thought out, also comes from a will to capture the innumerable and ambiguous solicitations that determine our relationship with today’s images and, in a certain way, our presence in the world: “The world, current events, politics, the great upheavals of perception, the accelerating flows of time make me react. Paint is a link; it is a binding agent. It links me to the world and to the other media, forcing me to always imagine the possibility of a new image...”