Sadie Benning began making videos at age 15, using the PixelVision toy camera the artist got for Christmas that year from Dad, a filmmaking teacher. On New Year’s Eve, Benning sat down in front of the camera for the first time, prompted by the events of a terrible night during which a friend was hit by a drunk driver and Benning witnessed a drive-by shooting while walking home from the hospital.
“So I was pretty freaked out,” the transgender artist recalled the other day, “and feeling like I needed to live for the moment and question existence.” The resulting videos exploring gender and Benning's unfolding sexuality landed the artist—at age 19—in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, making Benning the youngest ever invited to participate. Benning’s narrative collages, incorporating images of toys, photographs, bits of family movies and the artist’s own close-up conversations with the camera, opened up the artist's possibilities. “I think video allows you to fantasize about what the world can look like,” Benning, now 43, said. “And as a transgender queer youth without access at that time to images or language that affirmed my reality, I saw it as urgent to make my own images.”
By 2007, Benning had begun to add abstract paintings and drawings to a growing body of work. Built up in layers, they resemble puzzle pieces or relief paintings. “People often look at the surfaces of my work and have trouble knowing what exactly it is. Is it leather, is it ceramic? Is it a sculpture or a drawing or a painting?" said Benning, whose new two-part exhibition, "Green God," just opened at New York’s Mary Boone Gallery and Callicoon Fine Arts. “I’m into that unknown aspect or material ambiguity and see it as having a political context.” In “Green God,” the artist boldly explores the contradictory associations surrounding the color green—money, envy, eco-awareness, for example—and the meaning of Genesis 1:27, which says: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Would you call your first works video diaries? They were, in a way, forerunners to YouTube videos.
I was young and aware of the diary as a format, but I was more conscious that the videos were experimental and performance based--my concern with the word diary is that it highlights the confessional and is less about the imaginative and abstract qualities that I associate with those videos.
Your early videos were a way for you to construct your identity. What was the environment you grew up in?
I grew up in Milwaukee with my mom in a working class and racially mixed neighborhood in the 1980’s. [Benning’s parents were divorced.] The neighborhood had problems with unemployment, drugs, gangs and police profiling, and yet it was also the place I grew up in, a place where you had friends and family. So I saw it not in terms of only the bad but in terms of its beauty, too. I remember kids in my neighborhood not being sure how to read my gender identity so they would tease me by calling me Michael Jackson, which was strange at the time, but also I loved Michael Jackson so I was cool with it, too.
In those pre-Internet days, you had to mail or hand-deliver your videos. Is there anything you miss about that mode of delivery?
All my videos were distributed through the mail and most of them still are, by the Video Data Bank at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was very analogue. In a way, I got to understand what audience means to me by having to be there physically at screenings. This is a very different mode of distribution than the internet, or say YouTube. But I still am so informed by this way of thinking that I don't miss it yet. I can't miss it because I'm still doing it.
In the 1990s, you joined forces with Bikini Kill’s Katheen Hanna to form Le Tigre.What was appealing to you about being part of a band?
I’m from a family where making music is part of one’s everyday experience, so it was natural to me to be in a band with friends. I think music is a place where you can challenge social conventions because rhythm is so personal. It makes you feel things. I think that musical influences and the experience of creating music is in everything I do. It’s like a heartbeat.
You’ve said that since you didn’t train as a painter, you feel more freedom about what you can and can’t put in a painting. How so?
I just feel less inhibited as to what is acceptable. The history of painting is heavy with arguments, and as much as I am interested in knowing about them conceptually, I don't want to feel oppressed in the studio. I want to be free to try things that don’t make sense yet. I put materials together that maybe shouldn’t be and don’t follow hierarchies. I don't privilege the painting over the drawing—the drawing is the painting and because I’m less versed on the history of painting, I’m less concerned with if it even is a painting.
What are you exploring in your new show, “Green God"? Green naturally has lots of associations as does that other word in your title.
I was interested in thinking associatively about inherited belief systems and contradictions, especially in relation to capitalism and religion. I was interested in what the contradictions are in the signifiers for the color green—green being the color of money in the U.S., the color of envy or jealousy, and also a symbol for nature while being used by a corporation like British Petroleum to convey a sense of being environmentally sound. And I also wanted to think about more diverse representations of what a god can be and look like. The wall of seven associative images at Mary Boone Gallery is a good example of this: Turquoise God, Worm God, Green God, Purple Hat God, Grey God. Spattered connectively throughout this train of images are two paintings “Coin” and “Mayflower Now,” which point to the pilgrims. These were religious separatists who fled England to find freedom, but then they also took freedom and land from the Native Americans who were already living here. I don't know what to do with the reality of this history as a United States citizen except to see how wrong it is and bring voice to that because it remains politically relevant to me.
How do the two parts of the show—at Mary Boone and Calicoon Fine Arts—connect? Or do they?
The show came about through conversations between myself, [curator] Piper Marshall, Mary Boone and Photi Giovannis. I dealt with the Mary Boone uptown space differently because it has a different aura; her space is particular to her. Mary is a mythic figure—she has a long history and has her own notoriety as a figure so I was well aware of this when imagining showing with her. And I was aware that her space would imbue some of these historic narratives and myths as well. So I wanted to work with the found objects and photographs within that context because they too have had their own lives and aura, a kind of known and unknown presence. At Callicoon Fine Arts on the Lower East Side, I wanted to deal less with the associative links inside each painting and more with the associations between the works themselves.
Tell me about the works combining photography and painting.
I wanted to deal with my own unease about the separateness of medium specificity. The invention of photography was something that was literally a threat to painting as a medium, and it feels unnerving to me somehow to insert one into the other—like a bad idea, or like sitting the wrong people next to one another at dinner. But I like challenging myself to solve a problem and to deal with the uncomfortable.
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