Watching Guy Benfield with a paintbrush strapped to his bum crawl around the back of a Hi Ace van – as if in a trance – making elemental marks by gyrating his pelvis, I thought evidently releases painting from its subordination to representation and returns it to its primeval origins as the ooze from which we crawled as a species; a matter of the animal tracks we leave behind in developing our progressive social institutions.
I get the same feeling watching him wrestle with a huge clay pot he has thrown on the wheel, or use his head to paint a wall mural. Actions that seem like futile species responses to materials and environment, but which also riff on legendary precedents like Pollock in the studio, or Herman Nitsch in full swing, or Paul McCarthy’s juvenile panto.
No doubt many might find Benfield’s work perverse or infantile, since it certainly involves undoing painting in some sense, going back to consider its pagan libidinal associations and protean force, before it achieved any representational purpose and its Renaissance sophistication (indeed, its sanctification by the church).
Indeed, Modern art seems to have systematically undone painting, unraveling not just the material constituents of painting or sculpture, but the psychological bearing of artists – their primary disposition to materials – with one strand of this unwinding being the most abject: Piero Manzoni canning his shit in 1961, Shigeko Kubota painting with a brush in her vagina in 1965, Paul McCarthy painting with his penis in 1972, and so on.
Certainly after Freud, Winnicott and Klein, art materials changed forever. And as an art therapist might tell you today, “not only might clay be used … as if it were shit, for some [people] paint is shit and they would no more touch it than they would their own excrement”.
Like Susan Barnes’ rebirth under RD Laing’s ‘anti-psychiatric’ care, commencing with her shit wall-paintings (naked and ‘bottle-feeding’ at 33 years of age) and culminating in her successful career as an artist; she embodied the development of painting from inchoate preternatural urge to sensible creative expression.
But Benfield is acting up rather than acting out. His performances are planned and storyboarded around completing simple tasks – a drawing, a painting, a pot – although there is plenty of room for improvisation too.
Benfield will design a set, don a costume, wear a hat or a false beard, adopt a persona that he describes as “an artist, a curator, his father, a teacher, himself”; an unstable mix of aspirations, influence and Oedipus, which I sense in my own discomfort during the performance. I mean, anything could arise out of this explosive psychological mix.
I watched him ‘channelling’ Markus Lupertz in a Shanghai performance, where he used his false beard to paint an urn, crawling after the rolling vessel on his hands and knees with a dripping beardful of paint, a mix of eating, vomiting and painting. It’s often funny too (although Benfield has a brilliant poker-face), preparing noodles like Rirkrit Tiravanija in another performance as if he was serving communion, a 70s kaftan substituted for a priestly frock.
One could attempt to disentangle the references to his hippie parents and whacky home-life as a kid, his art education in the 80s, or his interests today in décor and design. Ashley Crawford had a crack at it:
It is 1979 and Guy Benfield is 15 years old as he watches his mother, resplendent in hippie caftan and mascara, chilled glass of chardonnay aloft, as she pours paint from the balcony of their Paddington terrace in an act of bon vivant defiance: a suburban bourgeois action painting straight out of a J.G. Ballard novel. Benfield cringes in the background, wondering why his parents can’t be like other kid’s parents. He retreats to his bedroom, back to the world of those strange European comics like 2000AD with their buxom heroines and the cover art of Yes albums, Roger Dean’s gentle surreal-organic world; a far safer place than the post-disco, post-alternative lifestyle world around him, of jarring colours, afro haircuts, bizarre sunglasses and flares.
But perhaps the whole point is the fusion of these inlfuences; their combination in Benfield’s odd behaviour, his slightly glazed eyes, the inscrutable ritual and stupor, his professed love of Chardonnay. Is he serious? Or merely eccentric? Is it ironic?
Well, it is all certainly dubitable, which I would argue is pitch-perfect for a generation put off genuine mutilation and self-harm, or suspicious of grand transcendent ritual, and disbelieving of the community ethos of relational aesthetics. In short, a generation that couldn’t really care enough to commit themselves to any great extent, troubling others with their fanatical ideas, and not that interested in the cares and ideas of others. Such ennui may be a virtue after all – not giving such a fuck about certain canonical precepts may yet save us from capitalism, wars, and environmental collateral damage –and it seems to suffuse all of Benfield’s work.
This is closer to entertainment: the sets, the costumes, the performance, the camera. ‘Action!’ not actionism. Benfield stages the end of performance art in the age of reality TV, loading simple gestures with unfathomable portent, which ultimately collapse under their own great weight. “In the end I give up”, Benfield says, it’s about the “futility”, the failure to cohere, while encumbered with so much potential social and psychological significance.
I’m certain Benfield would not object to charges of absurdism, since it is the conflict between the search for meaning and life’s ultimate meaninglessness that he enacts or dramatises. His pathetic failing to paint, or throw a pot, or make music despite the accoutrements, historical precedents and biographical influences is the very definition of our ambiguous human condition; seeking but failing to find inherent value and meaning.
Like the nihilists, existentialists and absurdists before him – like Sisyphus! – I sense Benfield’s freedom, his ambivalence, making it all up as he roams the junky sets and props around him, again and again searching po-faced for some kind of significance in the detritus.