“You are aware of only one unrest;
Oh, never learn to know the other!
Two souls, alas, are dwelling in my breast,
And one is striving to forsake its brother.
Unto the world in grossly loving zest,
With clinging tendrils, one adheres;
The other rises forcibly in quest
Of rarefied ancestral spheres.
If there be spirits in the air
That hold their sway between the earth and sky,
Descend out of the golden vapors there
And sweep me into iridescent life.
Oh, came a magic cloak into my hands
To carry me to distant lands,
I should not trade it for the choicest gown,
Nor for the cloak and garments of the crown.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: First Part
A self portrait sits in the corner of Paul Benney’s studio. Its title is ‘Janus’. The two faced deity. Looking forwards and backwards. Observing two states. Rooted between.
For the past thirty years Paul Benney has worked both in the United States and United Kingdom. His paintings are notably represented in a plethora of public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The National Gallery of Australia and The National Portrait Gallery in London, alongside many prominent private and corporate collections.
Benney’s career is an intriguing one. He is a multi-disciplined artist whose oeuvre moves beyond clear and definitive categorization although his work could be seen to continue the strong tradition of ‘British Mysticism’ championed by the likes of Samuel Palmer and William Blake. Clearly, the primary mode of expression is paint, which he handles with profound technical dexterity, but to add to this he is also a perfumer, a goldsmith (skills learned from his Father, the celebrated goldsmith Gerald Benney), a sculptor, a musician and also a magician. All of which he is able to carry out with notable esoteric ability and accomplishment. He is a polymath - a modern Renaissance Man. Marcus Aurelius once stated that “Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.” But the tangibility of technique is only one face; the artist must also have a passion to use the senses to delve in to the unsolved.
Francis Bacon proclaimed that ‘The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery” - Indeed Benney does not do all the work for you, the viewer. You stand in front of the often shimmering, surface of the work and observe. He makes paintings that you have to look at, marvel at and then contemplate. These paintings defy fixed meaning, concentrating more on a journey than a destination. As with the ‘Janus’ piece, one has more than one direction to follow and decipher.
A huge painting dominates the studio. ‘Dying Slave’. How should one interpret this? A nude figure rises from the whirling deluge of water beneath his feet, surrounded by flames and flowering embers pushing upwards – is this a hopeful image of life, immortality, defiance and / or transcendence? Or in fact the same figure pulled in to the dreadful abyss, sinking, un-escapable, the flickering flames about to be engulfed by the great flood. Extinguished. These two potentials coalesce on one plain.
In the opposite corner of the room two ovals are hung. Shimmering black glass. Reflective. Seductive yet impenetrable. Benney shines a torch on them, and from the core I see a painted face from depths staring back at me. These ‘Scrying Mirrors’ are quite unlike anything I have seen before; perplexing and magical. These works mine the intersection of technological advancement, mysticism and phantasmagorical phenomena creating an immersive experience reminding one of ecstatic revelation, stage magic, spirit photography, pseudoscience, telekinesis, and other manifestations of the paranormal.
I notice another detail in many of the works in the studio. The emanation of flickering light (almost flame like) rising from the head, signifying an animation of the spirit or soul. It is imagery that connects all creed and colour echoing through many different religions from the sacred art of Ancient Greece, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. This flame feels eternal. Alchemical.
It is interesting to me that Benney’s studio works are often viewed and described as ‘otherworldly’ or ‘visionary’. If by that it is meant that they go beyond the prosaic of what we see everyday with our eyes in the limited space beyond our own noses; then I would agree. But these are not works that are placed somewhere else beyond our concern. Leonora Carrington once stated “The task of the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope.” For me these paintings reveal on multiple levels a diverse state of existence. One where life and death co-exist. The inner and the outer. Matter and spirit. The known and unknown. The past and the Future. And at the heart of them the illusion of the fixed in between state - The Present. Is that not a vivid representation of the rounded reality of the human condition?
Joseph Clarke . 2016