|1997-1998||MA Fine Art||Chelsea College of Art and Design, London|
|1993-1996||BA (Hons) Fine Art||Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, London|
|ONE PERSON EXHIBITIONS|
|2019||Volcano Lovers||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2017||Haunts||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2015||Several Small Fires||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2013||Emma Bennett||Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff|
|2012||And, Afterwards||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2010||Death & Co.||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2002||Emma Bennett: New Paintings||Danielle Arnaud Contemporary Art, London|
|SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS|
|2019||10 Years||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2018||Sammlung Reydan Weiss. "Ohne Etikett fühle ich mich freier..." Herzog Anton||Ulrich Museum, Braunschweig|
|2018||Context: Gallery Artists & Collaborators||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2017||doing identity. Die Sammlung Reydan Weiss||Kunstmuseum Bochum, Bochum|
|2017||In Memoriam Francesca Lowe||Old Truman Brewery, London|
|2017||Nature Morte: Contemporary Still Life (curated by Michael Petry)||Guildhall Art Gallery, London|
|2017||Part III: Interiority (curated by Zavier Ellis)||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2016||I Prefer Life: Reydan Weiss Collection||Wesserburg Museum of Modern Art, Bremen|
|2016||Flora (curated by Alex Boyd Jones)||Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Aberystwyth|
|2016||Black Paintings (curated by Heike Strelow)||Galerie Heike Strelow, Frankfurt|
|2016||Flora (curated by Alex Boyd Jones)||Oriel Plas Glyn y Weddw, Pwllheli|
|2016||Black Paintings (curated by Zavier Ellis)||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2015||Flora (curated by Alex Boyd Jones)||Oriel Myrddin Gallery, Camarthen|
|2015||Flora (curated by Alex Boyd Jones)||Oriel Davies Gallery, Newtown|
|2015||Die English Kommen! New Painting from London (curated by Zavier Ellis)||Galerie Heike Strelow, Frankfurt|
|2015||Still Life - Ambiguous Practices (curated by Frances Woodley)||School of Art Gallery and Museum, Aberystwyth|
|2015||Collection of Small Paintings||The Contemporary London, London|
|2014||100 Painters of Tomorrow: London||Beers Contemporary, London|
|2014||Saatchi’s New Sensations and THE FUTURE CAN WAIT (curated by Zavier Ellis, Simon Rumley & Rebecca Wilson)||B1, Victoria House, London|
|2014||Still Life: All Coherence Gone? (curated by Frances Woodley)||BayArt Gallery, Cardiff|
|2014||Fleursdumal||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2014||Fleursdumal||Lion and Lamb Gallery, London|
|2013||Saatchi Gallery & Channel 4’s New Sensations and THE FUTURE CAN WAIT (curated by Zavier Ellis, Simon Rumley & Rebecca Wilson)||B1, Victoria House, London|
|2013||Emma Bennett & Caro Suerkemper: Glazed||BRAUBACHfive, Frankfurt|
|2012||Saatchi Gallery & Channel 4’s New Sensations and THE FUTURE CAN WAIT (curated by Zavier Ellis, Simon Rumley & Rebecca Wilson)||B1, Victoria House, London|
|2012||The Serpent’s Tail||Witzenhausen Gallery, Amsterdam|
|2012||Polemically Small (curated by Zavier Ellis & Edward Lucie-Smith)||Orleans House Gallery, Twickenham|
|2012||Kalliphilia||Vegas Gallery, London|
|2012||East Wing X||Courtauld Institute, London|
|2011||Saatchi Gallery & Channel 4’s New Sensations and THE FUTURE CAN WAIT (curated by Zavier Ellis, Simon Rumley & Rebecca Wilson)||B1, Victoria House, London|
|2011||Charlie Sierra Lima||CHARLIE SMITH LONDON, London|
|2011||Polemically Small (curated by Edward Lucie-Smith)||Klaipėda Culture Communication Centre, Klaipėda|
|2011||THE FUTURE CAN WAIT presents: Polemically Small (curated by Zavier Ellis, Edward Lucie-Smith, Max Presneill & Simon Rumley)||Torrance Art Museum, Los Angeles|
|2010||New British Painting||Gallery Kalhama & Piippo Contemporary, Helsinki|
|2009||THE FUTURE CAN WAIT (curated by Zavier Ellis & Simon Rumley)||Old Truman Brewery, London|
|2009||New London School (curated by Zavier Ellis & Simon Rumley)||Galerie Schuster, Berlin|
|2008||THE FUTURE CAN WAIT (curated by Zavier Ellis & Simon Rumley)||Old Truman Brewery, London|
|2007||THE FUTURE CAN WAIT (curated by Zavier Ellis & Simon Rumley)||Old Truman Brewery, London|
|2007||Equinox||Sarah Myerscough Fine Art, London|
|2006||Nocturnal||Sarah Myerscough Fine Art, London|
|2006||John Moores 24 / Liverpool Biennale||Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool|
|2005||Between Dog & Wolf||Clapham Art Gallery, London|
|2004||Forever Beautiful||Clapham Art Gallery, London|
|2004||Summer Showcase 2004||Case 1, London|
|2004||Emma Bennett, Marion Coutts, Anna Lucas||Front, London|
|2001||A Month in the Garden||The Museum of Garden History, London|
|2001||Bittersweet||Danielle Arnaud Contemporary Art, London|
|2001||Uchaperoned||Aroma Project Space, Berlin|
|2001||Deptford X||Deptford X, London|
|1999||Blink||Princelet Street, London|
|2015||Still Life: Ambiguous Practices, Frances Woodley||Aberystwyth University|
|2014||100 Painters of Tomorrow, Kurt Beers||Thames & Hudson|
|2014||Still Life: All Coherence Gone?, Frances Woodley||Aberystwyth University|
|2013||Nature Morte, Michael Petry||Thames & Hudson|
|2013||100 London Artists Vol. 1, Zavier Ellis & Edward Lucie-Smith||iArtBook|
|2013||Saatchi Gallery & Channel 4’s New Sensations and THE FUTURE CAN WAIT||Ellis Rumley Projects & Saatchi Gallery|
|2012||Saatchi Gallery & Channel 4’s New Sensations and THE FUTURE CAN WAIT||Ellis Rumley Projects & Saatchi Gallery|
|2011||Saatchi Gallery & Channel 4’s New Sensations and THE FUTURE CAN WAIT||Ellis Rumley Projects & Saatchi Gallery|
|2008||THE FUTURE CAN WAIT||Ellis Rumley Projects|
|K & K Kollektion, Monaco|
|Prieskel & Co, London|
|Julian & Stephanie Grose, Adelaide|
|David Roberts, London|
|The Reydan Weiss Collection, Munich|
|Private collections in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, United Kingdom & United States|
Press Release | 10 Years | 2019
|Dale Adcock, Emma Bennett, Kiera Bennett, Sara Berman, Jelena Bulajić, Tom Butler, Paul|
Chiappe, Adam Dix, Susannah Douglas, Tessa Farmer, Tom Gallant, Florian Heinke, Sam
Jackson, Simon Keenleyside, Thomas Langley, Wendy Mayer, Hugh Mendes, Sean Molloy,
Alex Gene Morrison, Tamsin Morse, Gavin Nolan, Dominic Shepherd, Carolein Smit, Barry
Thompson, Gavin Tremlett
|PRIVATE VIEW: Thursday 11 July 6.30-8.30pm|
|EXHIBITION DATES: Friday 12 July – Saturday 10 August 2019|
|GALLERY HOURS: Wednesday-Saturday 11am-6pm or by appointment|
|CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is delighted to announce ’10 Years’, our anniversary exhibition produced to celebrate a full decade’s|
operations in Shoreditch.
During this time we have presented 88 exhibitions within the gallery, defining CHARLIE SMITH LONDON and gallery director
Zavier Ellis’ unique curatorial vision. The gallery has also established itself as a discovery zone by being the first to exhibit many
acclaimed young artists via its annual graduate exhibition Young Gods. Beyond the gallery walls, the gallery has participated in
over 30 art fairs in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, UK and USA. Zavier Ellis also launched the monumental annual
exhibition THE FUTURE CAN WAIT with Simon Rumley, a ten-year project that was presented in partnership with Saatchi’s New
Sensations for four years and culminated in helping organise the seminal fund-raising exhibition In Memoriam Francesca Lowe.
Ellis has also curated or co-curated gallery, museum and pop up exhibitions in Berlin, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Klaipėda, London, Los
Angeles, Naples and Rome. And, perhaps most notably, the gallery has placed millions of pounds worth of artwork into collections
globally, working with many of the most prominent international collectors, and enabling artists to continue to do what artists do
best: making work.
This exhibition consists of some (but by no means all) of Ellis’ favourite artists who have shown over the years at CHARLIE SMITH
LONDON; some whom he has been tracking and wanting to show; and gallery artists. We hope you can join us on July 11th to help
us celebrate 10 Years!
Please contact gallery for images and further information.
Press Release | Context: Gallery Artists & Collaborators | 2018
|Context: Gallery Artists & Collaborators|
|Peter Ashton Jones, Emma Bennett, Kiera Bennett, Tom Butler, Dan Coombs, Florian Heinke,|
Sam Jackson, Reece Jones, Kate Lyddon, Eric Manigaud, Wendy Mayer, Hugh Mendes, Alex
Gene Morrison, Gavin Nolan, Dominic Shepherd, John Stark, Geraldine Swayne, Barry
Thompson, Gavin Tremlett
|EXHIBITION DATES Friday 23 February – Saturday 31 March 2018|
|In our first exhibition of the year, CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is pleased to offer a unique opportunity to view our gallery artists and|
key collaborators in context. Gallery Director Zavier Ellis states:
“In some ways a gallery artists show is a pretty dull and unimaginative thing to do. But, on the upside it enables our audience to
digest our stable in context. We are mostly a painter’s gallery, albeit with a curatorial emphasis that embraces every medium when
appropriate. The artists we exhibit are technical, but this is nowhere near enough in itself. You will find that each one of them
makes work with an intense emotional, philosophical or psychological charge, and so their work operates in a challenging,
These artists are lateral thinkers who know that the trajectory of history is not as linear as is often presented, and that everything
operates in a complex, non-hierarchical, interconnected way. Embracing doctrines and tendencies from the modern and
postmodern periods, as well as near and deep history, they conduct their investigation without irony or sentimentality, but rather
with positive affirmation, intelligence and deliberation.
Added to the gallery artists in this show, we have invited others with whom we collaborate regularly, who work in paint, pencil,
charcoal and installation. So in actual fact, a potentially dull and unimaginative idea becomes an intriguing and engaging
proposition. This is not for everyone, but those that get it will be rewarded for their conviction.”
Press Release | 2019
|PRIVATE VIEW: Thursday 17 October 6:30-8:30pm|
|EXHIBITION DATES: Friday 18 October – Saturday 16 November 2019|
|GALLERY HOURS: Wednesday-Saturday 11am-6pm or by appointment|
|‘It’s the mouth of a volcano. Yes, mouth; and lava tongue. A body, a monstrous living body, both male and female. It emits, ejects. It is also an interior, an abyss. Something alive, that can die. Something inert that becomes agitated, now and then. Existing only intermittently. A constant menace. If predictable, usually not predicted. Capricious, untameable, malodorous.’ Susan Sontag|
CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is delighted to present Emma Bennett’s ‘Volcano Lovers’. Known for her exquisite paintings where she sets still life, game, interior and other elements against monochromatic black grounds, Bennett introduces us to an entirely new and dominant motif in this exhibition.
In recent years Bennett’s work has increasingly explored the uncanny by juxtaposing seemingly incongruous elements within a black void. Leading on from Susan Sontag’s philosophical novel ‘The Volcano Lover’ (1992), Bennett inexplicably interweaves the volcano as motif alongside her traditional elements, amplifying the sense of cognitive dissonance further.
There is, however, a defiant internal logic within these paintings. Fruit, flowers, game, burning fires are of course memento mori. They are fulsome and life affirming but are fleeting, reminding us of the ephemeral nature of life. Bennett adopts the volcano as memento mori, but also acknowledges its threat which is, again, life affirming:
‘I’m interested in volcanoes as both givers and takers of life. Life evolves out of volcanoes and it enriches the earth…it provides fertile abundance. And therefore, people set up their homes in close proximity to the volcano where the land is rich and plentiful. In Naples, Mount Vesuvius looms over the city as a constant reminder of what might happen. Yet people live here and Naples buzzes with the excitement of that danger.’
By adopting volcanoes as her core subject Bennett’s paintings shift emphasis from still life to landscape and the volcanic harbinger takes its place as a contemporary symbol of the sublime. Its overwhelming physicality and menace induce awe and wonder. By combining the volcano with her ongoing motifs Bennett utilizes it as, again in Sontag’s words, a ‘visible metaphor for uncontrollable forces – of love, violence, of burgeoning revolution’. We might justifiably add beauty, brutality, fear and desire.
Press Release | 2017
|EXHIBITION DATES | Friday 17 November – Saturday 16 December 2017|
|CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is delighted to announce Emma Bennett’s fourth solo exhibition at the gallery.|
Bennett is well known for her sumptuous paintings that set figurative elements against black, monochromatic grounds. Potentially incongruous elements might be included in any singular piece including flowers; fruit; fire; water; fabric; or game; and more recently interior objects and details including lamps, table tops, curtains, stairs, alcoves and mirrors. Any indication of dissonance, however, is assuaged by fundamental, underlying interpretation and superlative compositional awareness. Bennett’s use of memento mori is well documented, as she intelligently navigates traditional motifs in combination with alternative, contemporary imagery derived from film and photography.
The ephemeral and intangible are relentlessly depicted, and now in combination with notions of place, as well as time. There is a foreground and background; and movement through, from or within a tangible space is suggested by stairs or mirrors that lead the eye around the picture plane. Presence, or rather absence, is effortlessly evidenced. These more spatial paintings suggest film settings and Bennett’s love of cinema is palpable within this collection. Referencing Laura Mulvey’s discourse on film in ‘Death 24x a Second’, where she suggests film ‘combines, perhaps more perfectly than any other medium, two human fascinations: one with the boundary between life and death and the other with the mechanical animation of the inanimate’ , we come to appreciate how creators throughout history have continued to meditate on the fundamentals of existence.
Bennett takes this interrelation between painting and film further:
‘I am looking at film stills, not so much because of the subject matter or narrative of the film, but rather because of their likeness to the places that exist within my memories. And now, my black void like spaces are reminiscent of the cinema auditorium.’
Questions about what might be, or have been, intonate dream or reverie, where reality and imagination coalesce to suggest misremembered places that were once populated by loved ones, now departed in one manner or another. Absence might denote an end, but Bennett would rather assert a continuum, where people, places, relationships, and memories evolve and endure.
Please contact gallery for images and further information
Press Release | 2015
|EMMA BENNETT | Several Small Fires|
|Exhibition Dates: Friday June 26th - Saturday July 25th 2015|
|CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is delighted to present Emma Bennett with her third one person show at the gallery.|
For this exhibition Bennett has created an exquisite set of intimate oil paintings on oak panels. Combining appropriated still life elements with beds, fire and landscapes; this is a significantly personalised series. Exploring the fleeting nature of experience and encounters, Bennett’s paintings are resonant and nostalgic. They also refer to the incomplete, fragmented nature of memory and thought:
‘My recent paintings, like memories, contain small fragments of imagery - these are focused details surrounded by darkness and ambiguity. The imagery of the paintings locates memories in specific places and, as with memories, there are sharply focused details as well as inaccuracies and things that one can't quite recall.’
This fragmented or failed recollection serves to blur the boundaries of reality and imagination, and introduces notions of desire, absence and loss. The illogicality of apparently disparate figurative elements suggests ambiguities in time and space, whilst the intangible nature of the subjects represented intonate dream and flux. We are eluded by the transient nature of smoke, fire and water, and reminded of the impermanence of the corporeal.
Please contact gallery for images and further information
Press Release | 2012
|EMMA BENNETT | And, Afterwards|
|Exhibition Dates : Friday September 7th – Saturday October 6th 2012|
|CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is delighted to present Emma Bennett with her second one person show at the gallery. |
In this exhibition Bennett continues to explore subjects that have dominated her work for several years, whilst focusing particularly on themes of gravity, time and transience. Still life elements appropriated from historical Dutch and Italian painting are set against monochromatic black grounds to simultaneously recall 17th century still life, Italian Renaissance and 20th century Modernism.
In these paintings we find any combination of fulsome fruit, expired game, folds of cloth, or consumptive fire, and these images may appear to be either suspended in time and space or are positioned as if on ledges that prevent the objects from any further descent. Bennett deploys these motifs to meditate on the temporality of the finite and to contemplate life, death and the after-life. Her latest work can be seen in relation to the ‘irreconcilable concept of presence and absence, life and death’ that Yves Klein explored in his Fire Paintings and in his ‘Leap into the Void’ project.
Indeed, Bennett has recently introduced fire as a personal symbol that aligns itself with the more traditional deployment of fruit, fauna, insects and animals as representative of the transience of corporeality. The characteristics of fire, such as heat, speed, and its upward motion provide a contrast with Bennett’s other motionless or downward moving motifs. There is a suggestion of gravity at work here, which to the artist suggests ‘a force that exists in opposition to the energy and momentum that propels people and things through life - onwards and (perhaps eventually) upwards’. Gravity is, therefore, a counterbalance to the inherent life-force of all living things, and it is defied by the rebelliously active fire that is historically associated with sky and above space. This juxtaposition of outwardly disjunctive elements continues to retain an internal logic within Bennett’s paintings, providing an instinctive, symbolic mise en place.
The introduction of fire is a significant development in Bennett’s work. Fire is a Heraclitean symbol of change, and as Gaston Bachelard notes in ‘Psychoanalysis of Fire’, ‘suggests the desire to change, to speed up the passage of time, to bring all life to its conclusion, to its hereafter’. In earlier work, Bennett employed her figurative and expressive techniques to portray movement and individual journeys through life. In ‘And, Afterwards’, even the unruliest of all natural elements appear as though time has stood still.
Bennett is interested in the human desire to make permanent things that will inevitably decay or be transformed over time. As with the work of Hollis Frampton (and in particular his film ‘(nostalgia)’), Bennett raises questions around the temporality of imagery, memory and the effect that time has on consciousness. Indeed, sometimes her palette suggests the slightly aged quality of the old master reproductions that she regularly works from. By using art historical books as second generational source material and embracing the tonality of colour-plates in preference to actual paintings or reality, we can begin to read this work in light of the tenets of postmodernism as well as neo-classicism, Modernism and even Romanticism. Plurality, appropriation and the combination of mediums are employed to arrive at a subjective meditation on life, loss and the transcendent.
Press Release | 2010
|EMMA BENNETT | Death & Co.|
|Exhibition Dates : Friday June 4th – Saturday July 3rd 2010|
|CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is delighted to present Emma Bennett’s first one person show at the gallery. |
Drawing on her previous paintings of still life elements set against expansive void-like grounds, Bennett proposes a contemplation on time, space and the fragility of the human condition. Underlined by a wistful acknowledgement of the sublime and the tragic, Bennett embraces the notion of the memento mori in her delicate application of appropriated imagery combined with expressive techniques derived from 20th century abstract painting.
In ‘Death & Co.’ Bennett continues to excavate 17th and 18th century Dutch painting for figurative motifs. She now turns her attention from images of hunted game that populated her previous work towards the maritime painting of Willem van de Velde, Jan Porcellis or Hendrik Jacobsz Dubbels. In doing so, Bennett’s monochromatic grounds become representational spatial fields, at once figurative and abstract, with sailing ships appearing from or receding into night time nothingness. As the artist states:
“The vessels appear to be travelling into the void-like space of the canvas. These ships represent individual journeys through life and reflect on the isolated state of people as they make their journeys, whether through passages of calm waters or treacherous high seas.”
Solitude, the passage of time, and a sense of becoming are alluded to, as are notions of value systems and materiality. Referring to the Dutch Golden Age, in which international trade and enterprise established the Netherlands as a world power, Bennett subverts conventional notions of wealth and emasculates historical power systems by freighting imperial ships with beautifully rendered still life fruits and flowers. Thus, in this fascinating new series of paintings, Bennett questions the ascendency of commerce in relation to historical methods of colonial exploitation and undermines its use of authority and dominance.
Text | Frances Woodley | 2015
|Tending the Flames of Reverie | Emma Bennett’s Poetics of Painting|
|Exhibition: Several Small Fires|
|Exhibition Dates: Friday June 26th – Saturday July 15th 2015|
Memory, the faculty of recall, is constantly under threat from subsequent experience. Memory is subject to change. Memories are what you are left with. You protect and guard them in case of loss. A memory clung to desperately will petrify. Over time it will occupy you, slows you up. Memories need to be set free.
Remembrance, the marking of a memory you hold dear, an anchoring with things and images to keep it from drifting. Remembrance is heavy with association, recollection, and retelling, but not too heavy to bear. The flames of remembrance must be tended. They must not overheat.
Dream, a sleep-induced unwinding and entwining of rememberings, images and experience, into which forgotten and discarded memories leak out as repressed and unfulfilled desires. ‘The dream proceeds on its way in linear fashion, forgetting its original path as it hastens along.’i Floating and fleeting through time and space, sense and self, the dream intensifies, only to fade away on waking.
Reverie, the waking dream, the day-dream, a fanciful imagining, contracting and expanding as it passes back and forth, in and out of non-sequential instants. Reverie takes its shape in the presence of fire, flow, or cloud. When induced by an image, one that is neither too specific nor too vague, reverie gives rise to a pleasurable dislocation, a losing of oneself. In reverie, time is both long and short, objects magnified and miniaturized, simultaneously.
Imagination, mental worlds invoked by the mind in wakefulness. ‘Material imagination, which always has a demiurgic tonality, would create all white matter from dark matter and overcome the whole history of blackness.ii Imagination makes the familiar strange. It extends the vision and the senses in make-believe. ‘With a single poetic detail, the imagination confronts us with a new world.’iii
Fire, real, fake, fallacious or imagined, is ‘the perpetual antagonist of gravity, giver and destroyer of life.’iv The flames of reverie shoot up, draw breath, suffuse all things with light, and warmth and glow. The picturing of fire, though colder, gives similar rise to reverie.
Emma Bennett’s painted reveries are private imaginings, layered images of elements and objects apparently suspended against a black ground. She plays with memory, time, space and dreaming. Conjuring up both the universal and the particular, her paintings remain nevertheless conjectures, for the daydream’s truths can never be rendered or evidenced in their entirety. Reverie is both resistant, and open, to interpretation. ‘Interpretation’ wrote Sontag in 1962, ‘is the revenge of the intellect on art, to interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings”’.v What was needed in the place of interpretation and its theories, she wrote, was ‘an erotics of art’.vi Almost fifty years later Bennett’s paintings can be considered as a contemporary response to Sontag’s challenge, and with this in mind there are two points concerning interpretation that I will touch on throughout this essay. Firstly, Bennett’s painting exists in forms of highly personal conversation with painting of the past: 16th and 17th century still life painting and 20th century colour field painting. Secondly, if representation is necessarily interpretation, then what does it mean for the representation of reverie to be open to the interpretation and reverie of others? When looking at paintings of the past such as Magritte’s The Ladder of Fire I (1934), or Rothko’s Seagram Murals (1959) interpretation must take a back seat—first you must open yourself up to reverie.vii So too In Bennett’s interpretations, where Sontag’s ‘erotics of art’ is put to work as arousal, awakening, as painted reverie on the paintings of others.
Painted reverie is undoubtedly an interpretation, the daydream regrouped for vision. However, it is important to point out that Bennett’s paintings, though forms of interpretation, are also particularly open to imagining rather than ‘reading’. Her paintings are first experienced as affective rather than symbolic, though such reading may come later.
Bennett’s painting is concerned with history and memory. But what is the significance of history here, and what memories are being recalled? A commonly held culture over time? An individual encounter with a historical artwork in the present—a floral still life, a banketje, or vanitas of the Dutch Golden Age or Italian Baroque? In their time, such paintings serviced a collective desire for reflection, both mirrored and meditative. All sorts of people ogled and owned still life paintings of objects that reflected back their never-had-it-so-good present, or vanitas paintings that served as symbolic reminders of what could be lost—life being transient, prosperity and beauty short-lived. At that time the symbols and signs that circulated in visual representation were steeped in conventions of religious and classical iconography that constituted a universal language across the arts, though locally stylized. In the still life paintings of rummers and gilt, lemons and walnuts, oysters and hares, a common culture of collecting, depicting, and signifying existed, through which meaning and memory were shared and valued.
Bennett’s sensibilities are undoubtedly coloured by her own memories of traditional still life painting in museums and collections, of time spent looking at a particularly mournful floral still life by van Huysum in the Dulwich Picture Gallery or Caravaggio’s precariously balanced basket of fruit in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, for example.viii These first encounters, return visits, and memories, are of course intertwined and overlaid with the artist’s other past experiences and imaginings, as well her various lives in the here and now. Though coloured by her viewing of the originals, and though her paintings bear an uncanny resemblance to those originals, it is not they, but their photographic reproductions that ignite Bennett’s imagination. It would seem as though the potential these reproductions offer up for reverie is just as important to her as any intrinsic meaning the originals might once have held, or continue to hold.
With the advent of commercial photography in the latter half of the nineteenth century, photographs began to lose, what Walter Benjamin termed, their ‘aura’. Singular images gave way to mass-produced reproductions. Some were used as mnemonics, miniature memory joggers for original paintings seen in the museum. Printed as postcards and photographic illustrations in books, journals and auction catalogues, they were popular, practical and efficient aides memoires. With advances in print technologies reproductions were even made into full-scale substitutes for the real thing; many a reproduction of a still life has been glazed, framed and displayed over a mantelpiece! All such reproductions of traditional still life painting provide rich pickings for Bennett. It is therefore a basic tenet of her painting practice that in place of originals, her motifs are instead the appropriated and altered fragments of different generations of reproductions—cut and collaged prints, photocopied and photoshopped prints of prints—from which she then paints.
But it is not only photographic reproductions that Bennett makes use of, but also photography’s current theory and criticism. Douglas Crimp, writing in 1980, described ‘the recent school of photography’, stretching from Atget to Rauschenberg and Warhol, as an ‘emptying operation’, and a ‘depletion of the aura’ of photography’.ix
The extraordinary presence of their work is effected through absence, through its unbridgeable distance from the original, from even the possibility of an original. Such presence is what I attribute to the kind of photographic activity I call postmodernist.x
Bennett agrees. For all their dreamy beguiling, the sources of her sources are absent, and in the case of her painting, only a painted reverie remains—reverie being immaterial it only becomes visible in representation. This is the paradox that lies at the heart of Bennett’s paintings: beautifully executed reveries on reproductions from which the aura and meaning of an original has been lanced and supplemented with highly personal significance. Reproduction understood in this way is very different from early forms of photography, or even mimesis as evoked here by Philostratus in the Imagines, 300 AD.xi
It is a good thing to gather figs and also not to pass over in silence the figs in this picture. Purple figs dripping with juice are heaped on vine-leaves; and they are depicted with breaks in the skin, some just cracking open to disgorge their honey, some split apart, they are so ripe. … You would say that even the grapes in the painting are good to eat and full of winey juice. And the most charming point of all this is: on a leafy branch is yellow honey already within the comb and ripe to stream forth if the comb is pressed; and on another leaf is cheese new curdled and quivering; and there are bowls of milk not merely white but gleaming, for the cream floating upon it makes it seem to gleam.
Though you are drawn into Bennett’s paintings of flowers, fruit, fish—even vine leaves—by what appears to be their mimetic richness as described above, you are soon dissuaded from admiring them for this alone. Her manner of depiction is not primarily intended to display mastery, but rather to be a reflection and rumination on images as surface. Her poetic painting is highly ambiguous, not intended to be descriptive of a reality, and sometimes even repellant in its dryness. Bennett’s manner of painting opens itself up to interpretation and reverie in ways that Philostratus’s ekphrastic writing does not. As we have seen, like some floating thief of time Bennett nicks and lifts the grapes and drapes, roses and posies, hares and flares from the likes of Mignon, Ruysch and Weenix, and repositions them by deft acts of reproduction and representation.xii She steals the souls of paintings, compresses their histories, and appropriates what is left of them in reproductions fit to paint from. Her painting is made both melancholic and energetic through the reproductions of its origins in ways that would not have been possible if those originals had been copied or nature imitated.
As suggested earlier, there is also a more recent history of painting at work here. From Bennett’s early interest in mid 20th century American colour field painting comes her concern with flatness, and black flatness in particular. Her blacks are fields devoid of colour other than that which is reflected back on them from beyond their picture surface. Materially impenetrable yet phenomenologically penetrative, shallow yet deep, non-representational yet resonant, they pay homage to the blacks of Klein and the sombre hues of Newman and Rothko with their all-encompassing sense of hugeness. ‘I have also followed the imagination to a point well beyond reality, in its task of enlargement, for in order to surpass, one must first enlarge’, wrote Bachelard in 1958.xiii In Bennett’s small paintings too, it is a similar
magnitude of blackness that is being evoked. The mysteriousness of these black grounds is exaggerated by the absence of shadows, cast or attached. Blackness does not intrude, motifs and blackness resist one another. By way of relief, the artist sometimes applies a translucent ‘pour’ of paint to a black surface, to remind you, and herself perhaps, of their immutability, their inscrutability, while on another occasion she might throw a shiny scumbling of dark lacquer at them—a disruption, a spoiling. These blacks, therefore, set the conditions for reverie, it is they that call the shots.
Bennett’s black grounds may be interpreted as traditional symbols of unenlightenment or evil, as metaphors for infinity, or as more straightforward representations of night or universe. They may also conjure up memories of dark spaces—an empty stage or a blacked out cinema. Or, they may simply be forms of vacancy, awaiting imaginative occupation. As the blacks are materially flat the implication is that the ‘objects’ that exist somewhere to the front of them, floating, hanging, pendulous and weightless, must be lit by your world, yet from your position as viewer outside the picture you feel them to be a world apart. As you find yourself caught up in speculation on the apparent incoherence of light, space and form you are carried away by your own imaginings, forgetting yourself in the process. The objects are merely motifs after all, only paintings of reproductions, insubstantial in almost every sense, yet you find yourself inveigled by their disjunctions, pulled into a state of slight uncertainty and unsettling. In this sense her objects and blackness are provocative.
Colours used in painting are not generally transient or fugitive unless subjected to long periods of light, short instances of fire, a dissolving, or a drowning. Paintings are material objects and fairly permanent. They are terra in the classical sense—earthly matter. Other classical elements, aqua, aer and ignis, and phenomena such as time and gravity, unlike terra, resist depiction in themselves. Yet the effect they have on objects, man made as well as natural, have long been depicted by still life artists to address universal concerns regarding the transience of life and the mutability of possessions: the burning candle, the rotting fruit, the half drunk glass, the tipping basket, the dried out cheese. These days they are referred to as ‘states of matter’, solid, liquid, gas and plasma, all of which make their appearance in Bennett’s paintings.
But what of fire, a theme that Bennett returns to periodically? In the past, as Bachelard suggests, poetic, philosophical, and anthropological accounts of fire were written as reveries of desire: of sex, arson, pyrotechnics, transmutation, immolation.xiv Maybe so, but the fire of reverie is more often a quieter one. There exists a thoroughly tamed fire in The Birth of St John the Baptist, a small panel painted in 1454 by Giovanni de Paolo that hangs in the National Gallery in London.xv It is a compliant fire, its hairy flames are flattened to fit with the vanishing lines of a rectangular fireplace, it’s work not to heat, but to reinforce an illusion of depth, space and narrative. Hardly the fire of reverie! So if not mythically dramatic, or quiescent like di Paolo’s, what might Bennett’s several small fires be aspiring to? Are they flattened too, or are they able to cultivate spaces of their own from which daydreams can be coaxed? And if her fires are neither accurately rendered observations, (quite impossible as fire is never still), nor general impressions, nor reproductions, nor simulacra, then what sort of represented fires are even possible? Bennett’s solution to this is to paint her fires as spectral flames. Nothing passes through them, nothing is torched, charred or branded. Because time stands still in her pictures of reverie, a burning or smouldering appears and disappears only in you, the daydreamer’s imagination, where it can flit or roar, in states that are insubstantial and uncontained.
Imagine, you tear out a photograph of fire and you set it jauntily between the fruit in your fruit bowl. You capture little assemblage on your smart phone. Does the image on your phone go up in flames, or the fruit? Whatever the illusion of potentiality such objects are only able to ignite poetically in your imagination. In a similar way, the visual disjunctions of fruit and fire in Bennett’s paintings set off musings on juiciness and inflammability, of sweetness inflamed? Though only fire can ignite matter, fire’s representations and reproductions can ignite reverie.
Bennett’s paintings are full of conceits such as these. A painted curtain, that classical convention used by many a Golden Age still life painter, may appear to float instead of hang, drawing you in your reverie into a timeless, weightless, spaceless, state of suspension. A tablecloth is painted without its table, so that you are left wondering at the absence of something that had never been present. Bennett makes no significant incursion into flatness with curtain or cloth. No fixed picture plane emerges, and no dimension. If other things exist in their absence then they do so only in our imaginings. Most recently Bennett has invited objects of the here and now to enter this ‘world’ of flatness. These small-scale paintings with their intimate intrusions are more ambiguous and paradoxical than ever. Take Tender Visiting (2014) and its bed, that home of the half thought, half dream of half sleep, half wake. This half bed, with one pillow, cropped half way up, has made a brazen push into flat blackness, suggesting a depth not apprehended before. As if to secure its tenuous footing the artist has painted every crumpled fold of bedding, and within each fold, every inner fold imaginable. The bed linen is worked to death; it is imprisoned in its awkward dimension. Yet, over the bed, a posy drops languorously, and curls a stem or two to beckon you, the absent dreamer.
The outline shapes of images, irrespective of their scale, have also begun to echo one another across the canvas. Suggestions of similarity and association occasionally disturb the stillness. In reverie things can change and connections may be made not countenancedbefore. So, in Bennett’s recent painting Tipping (towards love) (2014), a stone bridge, through which water tumbles, appears on the canvas as miniature yet in reverie— hers and yours—it is able to become yet more shrunken, huge and distant in the same instant. Its water is suspended, it neither soaks back into the black, nor drips downwards, nor strays across. The motifs in this painting seem to reach out in anticipation of a meeting across time and space. Foamy water and folded cloth seem to mirror one another to suggest a potential connection. Both float, deflated and inflated, in a state of longing. Bachelard writes of ‘a dialectic of inwardness and expansion’, a sort of coming and going:
[It] ‘takes so subdued a form that we forget the dialectic of the large and the small. … the imagination no longer delineates …The dream withdraws into this interior space and develops in the most paradoxical delight, in the most ineffable happiness.’xvi
Flat, poured over, intruded upon, these paintings dwell on the paradoxes of time, space, history and memory, gravity and weightlessness. Bennett represents a poetics of instants. There is no duration here, no depth, and hence no narrative. There is only spectral presence. Physical laws are waived and the ‘one thing leads to another’ of imagination takes hold. The reveries, hers and yours, bound only by blackness, are experienced as disconnects, dislocations, incongruous couplings that exist in forms of suspension. ‘In its countless alveoli space contains compressed time. That is what space is for.’xvii
Bennett’s paintings are flat sites for deep reverie. It is a practice that is hard won, emotional, and time consuming, one that relies on memories, knowledge, skill, vision, and intuition, as well as an openness to the interpretations of those artists who precede her. ‘Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived.’xviii
I Bachalard, G. 1968. The Psychoanalysis of Fire. Boston: Beacon Press. p.14.
II Bachelard, G. 2005 On Poetic Imagination and Reverie. Connecticut: Putnam. p. 9.
III Bachelard, G. 1994 The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 134. IV Bachelard, 1968. p. 81.
V Sontag, S. 2009, ‘Against Interpretation and Other Essays’, London: Penguin. pp. 6,
XI ibid. p.12.
VII The Ladder of Fire I, 1934, Rene Magritte, oil on canvas, 54x73 cm. Private Collection.
The Seagram Murals, 1958-9, Mark Rothko, oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London.
VIII Vase with Flowers, ca. 1715, Jan van Huysum, Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Basket of Fruit, 1599, Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio oil on canvas, 31x47 cm, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan
VIIII Crimp, D. ‘The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism’, October, Vol. 15 (Winter, 1980), 91-101. MIT Press. 95.
X Crimp, (Winter 1980). 95.
XI Philostratus the Elder, The Imagines, Philostratus the Younger, The Imagines, Callistratus, Descriptions, 1931, The Loed Classical Library No. 256, New Haven: Harvard Press. p. 123.
XII Abraham Mignon (1640-1679), Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750), Jan Weenix (1640/9-1719)
XIII Bachelard, 1994. p. 112XIIII Bachelard, 1968. pp. 74-90.
XV The Birth of Saint John the Baptist: Predella Panel from Baptist Predella, 1454, Giovanni di Paolo, egg tempera on wood, 30.5x36 cm. Collection National Gallery, London.
XVI Bachelard, 2005. pp. 91-92.
XVII Bachelard, 1994. p. 8.
XVIII ibid. p.12.
Frances Woodley is Principal Lecturer - Arts and Media, Faculty of Creative Industries.
Text | Paul Carey-Kent | 2010
|PAUL CAREY-KENT | How to paint in four dimensions|
|Exhibition: Death & Co.|
|Exhibition Dates: Friday June 4th – Saturday July 3rd 2010|
|It’s not easy being a painter these days. Not only do we expect some visual seduction, we also demand an original and recognizable style and want some ideas to be tackled. The state of painting itself is always worth a reference. And if a little technical flair could be thrown in, heavy-handedness avoided and continuing development demonstrated over the years, that would be all for the good. Not easy at all, but Emma Bennett navigates those challenging expectations with some assurance in ‘Death and Co’, her new series of large paintings. They show ships in dark waters, apparently sailing into the void-like space of the canvas, their cargoes of fruit and flowers spilling overboard. |
The visual seduction comes in a quadruple dose. Each large canvas combines a glowering lamp black void, a series of realistic images sourced from seventeenth century Dutch painting, and an abstract expressionist intervention not unlike a passage of Morris Louis staining. The striking effect of combining those three apparently disparate elements makes up the fourth dose. What’s not to fall for?
The result is also highly distinctive, both visually and in how so much is so seamlessly brought together. Those four elements, for example, can also be seen as four different timescales caught up in one image: the 17th century of the source paintings, the 20th century of the abstract gesture, the 21st century of their combination, the eternity of the void.
That concern with time already starts to suggest big themes. Bennett sees the ships as representing individual journeys through life, and reflecting ‘on the isolated state of people as they make their journeys, whether through passages of calm waters or treacherous high seas’. The paintings are about time, our span of it as living things, the nature of the void we come from and to which we will – or will we? – return. As Bennett says, ‘there is a clarity about the start of life, but an ambiguity about the end’. There are lots of oppositions to get our heads around: life / death; night / day; dark / light; stillness / movement; abstraction / representation; control / spontaneity…. They’re all built in.
Many of those oppositions have been present in Bennett’s previous work, but her newest paintings develop them further by adding ships to the range of Dutch Golden Age images appropriated. The sense of movement, and of the human journey through life becomes more explicit. The history of trade, struggles for power, imperialism, battles, cargo, shipwreck, slavery… there is a whole set of extra implications to think about. But Bennett raises questions rather than seeking to impose answers. Or as she says ‘it’s more about my personal exploration of things that I’m trying to get my head around’.
The question ‘how can painting remain relevant?’ is also addressed. Bennett is a miner of paintings past who picks her favourites from classical and modernist traditions, simply on the basis of what appeals to her and chimes with her own concerns. She then shows how those meanings and techniques can be made fresh for a 21st century context. The result isn’t the more academic type of ‘painting about painting’, in which the main point of the work is to examine different means of representation. Rather, the history of painting and the metaphorical ideas built into the traditions of still life and marine paintings are used to bring history into the work. That’s one way forward with painting: to use its whole past not just as an influence, as every good painter must, but as a direct jumping-off point for doing something new.
Technically, too, Bennett has to operate in four modes. It isn’t the point of the flowers, fruit, ships and smoke taken from classical masterpieces that they are accomplished imitations of the original, but we can admire the incidental fact that they are. The black void against which they appear requires a different discipline, as does the judgement of control and chance which goes into the abstract elements. And then the whole must cohere in a convincing manner.
Furthermore, the themes are built into how the work is made. The paintings are about time, and as well relying on four different periods of time for their content, they use a mixture of fast and slow processes, of precise representation and spontaneous abstract mark-making. The historic is overtaken, as in life, by the modern. The pouring process puts us in mind of the sea’s swell and makes wave-like forms for the ships to sail in. The abstract ground acts as ocean by night, the void we come from and the death we move towards.
There’s nothing wrong with serious topics – in Bennett’s words ‘they cover big subjects but – that’s life!’. But it may sound as if such themes could come across as heavy-handed. However, there is a sense of play in the use of metaphors from still life and nautical painting being jammed together so there is almost too much going on. It’s done with a wink, I think, and there is also, visually, an element of the absurd in the combinations she makes, in particular in the shifts of scale which pairs giant fruit with ships – or is it model ships with everyday fruit? That touch of humour is necessary to keep any portentousness at bay. We see it again in the replacement of flags with the bows taken from hanging festoons of flowers. It’s there in her previous series, too: fruit which borrows the wings from birds, or deer wearing flowers, for example.
So that is how to paint in four dimensions. The beauty of it is that, although it may sound complicated, and though it certainly gives the viewer plenty to think about, it leads to paintings which are immediately and straightforwardly alluring.