(An occasional series in which works of art are pitted against their wall text)
Scene: The New Museum Triennial: Surround Audience
Work: Juliana (2015), Frank Benson (Painted Accura® Xtreme Plastic rapid prototype).
She has been all over my Twitter for weeks, naked, iridescent green, staring out from my phone screen, saying “look at me.” Now we’re face to face. Nose ring. Glossy purple lips. She has something to say to me, but she’s not saying it out loud.
In his technically precise photographs and sculptures, Frank Benson reflects on art as a kind of mimicry, a field of human endeavor in which one element of the physical world is made to assume the form of another.
The sculpture is hot, the wall text ultra-cool. The sculpture persons, it dominates the room with its vibe. The wall is trying to tell me she’s made of plastic. But what, really, is plastic except the solidification of human wishes and intentions? “Art as a kind of mimicry” is what used to be called “representation.” Life sized, fierce, she overwhelms the “it” of the sculptural: she is subject not object.
Though he has favored time-honored materials like ceramic and bronze in the past, Benson also employs 3-D scanning and digital sculpting in his figurative work.
A body, a person, has been scanned and printed. Do you remember when Karin Sander first scanned and printed tiny doll-replicas of people and put them on pedestals, way back in the year 2000? The state of technology has advanced since then: detail is enhanced, textures and materials expanded, we can print life-size.
In sculptures that use these new technological techniques, classicism—which offers an escape from reality through the idealization of natural forms—meets the contemporary visual culture of virtuality, which places the hyperreal on a pedestal.
As sleek as an action figure, as uncanny as a screen avatar, as confrontational as Manet’s Olympia! If you’ve ever been virtual, if you’ve lived as an avatar for a few thousand hours, you know that the virtual is anything but hyperreal, anything but above or beyond you: the virtual is radically intimate, a scaffolding of of the sub-real filled out with imagination and projection. Avatars feel real because players imbue them with self-stuff — they are real because you are real.
For Juliana (2015), Benson turns his attention to artist Juliana Huxtable and casts the dialectic of surface and substance in a new light. Like his past works, Juliana is rooted in Benson's friendship with his model: Huxtable selected her pose and the color of the sculpture's finish, among other details.
There is a shimmer of authorship, back and forth between Benson and Huxtable, collaboration and competition both. In this room, with her own self portraits and poems on the wall nearby, Huxtable wins easily. What matters, standing here and now, is the self-fashioning of an artist who is her own medium. Her transitioned and styled body is a work, fusing material, meaning and imagination; it presents itself prior to being scanned and re-presented. Everyone creates themselves, but Huxtable is all in; this raises stakes.
The sculpture conveys every aspect of Huxtable's actual appearance, and yet its monochrome metallic surface renders it otherworldly.
It is here, in the attempt to mimic or convey, that the abstraction of Benson’s work is on display, for Huxtable herself can have no “actual appearance”; she has an infinite number of appearances. Her ‘appearances’ laugh, have sex, DJ, blog, make art. Benson’s sculpture shows off its artifice by freezing a moment in time and asserting that moment’s primacy. It tries to hide the magic-trick of its own making by smoothing out all the digital glitchiness of the process, tucking away from view the countless hours of 3D modeling and rendering. It is the hidden digital labor, more than the coat of metallic green paint, that gives the sculpture its uncanny effect. Close examination of the sculpture-as-object reveals the many aesthetic choices of the artist (How much texture for the pubic hair? How much detail in the ropy braids? How to treat imperfections in the skin?).
For Huxtable surface treatments have had important functions. She has spoken of painting her body green and appearing in public, nude, as an Afrofuturistic character she calls Nuwaubian Princess: “before then I never felt comfortable just being naked in public.”
In the room with Juliana, I notice that many viewers are afraid to look at her. They stand watching the Ed Atkins video playing on the opposite wall, or perusing the Firenze Lai paintings, or even Huxtable’s own self portraits. Few walk up and look Juliana in the eye, study her gaze, her breasts, her penis, her long blue fingernails, the twisted ropes of her hair, the gesture of her hand.
The slight but transformative displacement provided by a coating of paint—or an unfamiliar medium—allows Juliana to be a perfect likeness of its subject with a presence entirely its own, reflecting powerfully on the history of figurative sculpture and providing a new icon for our times.
The wall makes an art historical claim for the sculpture as sculpture but drains the politics out of the body—the body of Juliana Huxtable, the body of Juliana the sculpture, the body of possibility on display. “Icon” is not enough. Juliana the body is a call towards avatar life as a sci-fi self-imagining and self-rendering, a call towards the visibility of blackness outside of the normative or the stereotyped, a call towards trans presence and the destabilization of gender binaries; it is a refusal and an invitation, a test and a dare.
Sal Randolph is an artist who lives in Brooklyn and frequently works with language. Her work has been seen recently at Raygun Projects in Toowoomba, Australia, at the Moore College Galleries in Philadelphia, Proteus Gowanus in Brooklyn, and in the pages of The American Reader and Cabinet.