Critical Mumble

Benglis 73/74
Curator: Geoff Newton
Neon Parc, Melbourne; Sutton Projects, Melbourne; TCB Art Inc., Melbourne
10 September – 11 October 2014; 11 September – 11 October 2014; 1 – 18 October 2014

The story has been told many times before so I will try to keep it brief. Throughout 1972-74 Lynda Benglis and sometime collaborator Robert Morris exchanged a number of video essays and interventions culminating in the advertising pages of Artforum. These ‘interventions’ (paid-for advertisements existing outside of editorial control and thus forming a new relationship with the Artforum readership) reached their apotheosis with a double-page image of a naked Benglis, obligatory sunglasses and Californian tan in tow, with an oversized double-headed dildo thrusting from her groin. The centrefold image, two-thirds of it blank, marked out a singular gesture in the politics of intervention and led (in part, but not exclusively as is often suggested) to the resignation of sub-editors Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson and the establishment in 1976 of October journal. The controversy, the hilarious responses across letter pages in subsequent issues, and a series of ill-conceived imitative gestures, has brought about a number of critical reviews, essays, monographs and, in 2009, a thirty-fifth anniversary reflection at Susan Inglett Gallery, New York, that dwelt on the juicier legacy of the Benglis-Morris correspondence.

What, we might say, is left to be said forty years on? Geoff Newton’s triple-headed dildo of a show ‘Benglis 73/74’ at Neon Parc, Sutton Projects and TCB Art Inc. leaves it to her contemporaries and to subsequent generations of artists to dwell on the range of possibilities offered by the Benglis-Morris intervention. Jeff Koons, Robert Mapplethorpe and Julian Dashper represent international artists mobilising the lexicon of the artist intervention after Benglis-Morris. John Nixon is there — as he always seems to be of late — to remind us of the burden that we seek to unpack, re-evaluate, reframe and reform in a number of very subtle monochrome covers for the then Greenberg mafia that was Artforum c.1970. Cosey Fanni Tutti’s infamous Piccadilly International collage of throwaway ’70s pornography is superbly reframed alongside more recent work, including the revelation of Dale Frank’s late-1990s vinyl banners of movie posters re-imagined with hardcore images.

Sarah Lucas and Ruth Ellis mark out a different possibility altogether. Their work, empowered in subject and process, demands a re-reading of the legacy for women artists, after Benglis infuriated and inspired two generations of feminists and their antagonists. John Meade’s elegant and persuasive plastics and Stuart Ringholt’s witty collages speak of local responses that tease rather than brutalise, whilst Lionel Bawden reminds us that the phallus is sometimes more than just a penis (something Benglis, I am sure, would approve of).

Perhaps the Lucas and Koons fail to persuade us in the way that they used to, and distract us into thinking this is a show about aggressive confrontation and pornography. More interesting are Sophie Takách’s haptic bronze events — castings of female genitalia that speak of the hand of Benglis rather than the dildo — as are Tyza Stewart’s oil portraits of their own gender exploration and possibility. 

Newton’s curatorial take is shrewd. Rather than dwelling — as so often — on the gossipy circulation of images and texts in the wake of Benglis’s 1974 intervention, what we see is the range of possibilities offered by the gestures and interventions of Benglis and Morris. And whilst the generational juxtaposition of artists reminds us of the range of options for self-promotion, employment of media reproduction and occupation of new spaces between artist and their public, the inclusion of emerging artists here is far from tokenistic. It reminds us of the audacious necessity of continually reframing the spaces of artistic invention and interaction, together with a shared vigilance against censorial abuses of subject (that Paul Yore’s case was dismissed without charge during the running of these three shows is one of the happiest reminders of that). 

Across the three spaces we are reminded of the rich variety of responses — some profound, others subtle, some downright silly — that mark out a more complex inheritance of ideas prompted by Benglis’s centrefold than is usually offered in discourse and theory driven considerations of authorship and authority. That artists have been led to talk of these possibilities reminds us more than ever of that need to think about what remains to be said about the spaces that emerge after Benglis. The point — as WJT Mitchell tells us — is not to heal the rift between images and words, but to see the ways in which such rifts continue to serve us today. ‘Benglis 73/74’ does that, and reminds us that this remains as important in 2014 as it does for 1974. 

Forty years on, Benglis turned 73 during the run of these three shows. The elision of her work by the Octoberists — as Benglis will continue to argue — has tended to burden it with the weight of one misunderstood image. And whilst Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson will similarly in turn be misunderstood — they maintain that their complaint was that the image marked out a brutalising of the reader and the circumvention of editorial privilege — these three exhibitions show us that much can still be said, should be said and will be said regarding the spaces of intervention, interaction and discussion between artists and their readers. 

'Benglis 73/74'. Installation view, Neon Parc, Melbourne. left to right: Sarah Lucas, Bucket of Tea, A, 1993-2013. Four cut colour photographs on red Perspex, chrome tubing, wire, dimensions variable. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London; Jeff Koons Studio, La Cicciolina, 1991. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz. With 8 studio Xeroxes. Ed 9/50, 21 x 14.8cm; Scott Redford, Yellow and Chrome Berlin, 2014. Collages, 77 x 77cm, 84 x 74cm, 8 parts. Courtesy the artist and Gould Galleries, Melbourne; Tyza Stewart, Nicole/Tyza, 2014. Oil on board, 45 x 30cm. Courtesy the artist and Heiser Gallery, Brisbane; General Idea, Test Tube, 1979. 28:15min, colour, sound. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix, New York. 

'Benglis 73/74'. Installation view, Sutton Project space. left to right, back: Stuart Ringholt, Page 133, 2009. 26 x 26.5cm. Edition of 2. Page 255, 2009. 26 x 26.5cm. Edition of 2. Page 2, 2009. 26 x 26.5cm. Edition of 2. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane; Robert Morris, Williams College Clark Court Proposal, 1977. Lithograph, 50 x 70cm; Dale Frank, Casper, 1997. Varnish and glass balls on printed vinyl, 119 x 306cm. Get Ready to Jam (Portrait of the Artist accompanied by Michael Jordan on a Day Trip to the MCA), 1997. Wiggle eyes and paper on printed vinyl, 134 x 297cm. She's the Only Thing Better than Being There, 1997. Mixed media on printed vinyl, 119 x 306cm. Apollo 13, 1997. Paper on printed vinyl, 119 x 306cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.  

'Benglis 73/74'. Installation view, TCB Art Inc. left to right: John Meade, Nighttime #2, 1997. Vacuum formed ABS plastic, steel, plastic, 7 parts 60.0 x 40.0 (diam.)cm each, 162 x 153 x 107cm overall. Courtesy the artist and Sutton Gallery; Rohan Wealleans, Golden, 2014. Lenticular print, 51 x 41cm; Double Decker, 2014. Lenticular print, 50.5 x 40.5cm. Courtesy the artist and Ivan Anthony Gallery; Fiona Macdonald and Thérese Mastroiacovo, Double-Sided Poster, 2010. Digital print, 155.5 x 112cm. Courtesy the artists; The Kingpins, Oz Style, 2010. Oil on canvas, 120 x 110cm. Courtesy the artists and Neon Parc.