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Zoe Benbow's Tectonic exhibition at Cafe Gallery


In the catalogue for Zoe Benbow’s one-person show ‘Tectonic’ at the Cafe Gallery, Southwark Park which featured her large painting ‘Rocky Romance’ – also shown at the Bloomberg Space during ‘Art Futures’ – artist and critic Kodwo Eshun wrote the following essay on the subject of abstract geological landscape:

In a Landscope – A Neologism for Z.B.

What is a landscope?

One can read this freshly-minted neologism quite simply. It refers to a landscape perceived though a microscope. It points to the landscape that emerges into an altered visibility, after it has been reformed by its passage through the dimension of the microscope. It refers to an abstract geology –  a geology of association and memory as much as landmark and hillside. And finally it refers to an infatuation with landscape, a desire to be inside it, surrounded, protected and fused with it.

Zoe Benbow’s most recent paintings, entitled Tectonic, exhibited at Café Gallery in Southwark Park signal a departure from her preoccupation with the geometric. In her work of the last 3 years one was confronted and calmed by a frontal plane in which chromatic intensities were held in check . The field of forces summoned up were simultaneously subjected to a tremendous pressure that contained them in compression. What is striking about the large Tectonic paintings is the appearance of a gestural  mark that moves across the canvas in rotational sweeps that reminds one of effects achieved by Gerhard Richter through a squeegee. In substituting a stick wrapped in newspaper for a brush , the tension of the earlier paintings gives way to a preoccupation with incongruity that might be characterised as a battle between between forces of colour for domination of the plane. The ruptures, ripples, folds, tremors, swipes and random movements that now erupt are held in place as before ,by themselves as frontal planes of texture.

What is consistent in Benbow’s work is a preoccupation with the dimension of frontality. The surface has a weight that holds it’s own and bears down upon the viewer, defying gravity by supporting itself. As Benbow says: “painting is like a natural state of zero gravity. You’re always having to defy gravity because the paint always wants to come down and fall down and you have to make it stay up’’.

This frontality is an invitation; there is always the possibility of reading the space and structure another way, of perceiving what was the foreground suddenly becoming the background . These kinds of plane reversal and textural incident can be seen as a way of moving viewers around the work and offering them a time frame in which to look.

On doing so one is struck by the adventure of colour within Benbow’s work. Each painting asks itself several questions : what can a colour do and how might it behave in it’s relation to another colour? I believe that Benbow is happiest when she speaks the language of colour, a language that is empirical, technical, experimental and speculative by turns. Much of her time is spent translating from this discourse back to standard English.

What is fascinating is to visit the artist at her East London Studio and listen to her talk about the force, mass and motion of colour. How far can a colour be pushed? How much weight can a colour bear? What can it hold?  “You can push two colours to the extent that they take on a life of their own; they can come so close that there is a charge like an electric reaction”.

In her new work, Benbow mixed paint differently, using gum turps instead of pure turpentine . as a result the paint became stickier ,began to hold the surface much better, thus opening up a certain sensitivity that introduced the possibility of a change in aesthetic vocabulary.

This vocabulary is abstract; Benbow is an abstract painter because abstraction “allows for the possibility that anything might happen because you don’t have to ground it‘’.

However, it is necessary to qualify this definition:  “I have to call my works abstract because there is a limited vocabulary but I don’t really think of them as abstract at all. They are very real, they’ve got references, they have a history informing every element ‘’.

This is an abstraction that is not so much referential as it is associative. Looked at across the last 16 years, Benbow’s work becomes a series of variations on a set of accumulated habits, preoccupations that emerge as inadvertent reworkings. Benbow reflects that “after painting for quite a long time, you find you have this diversity of language available to you, until it is the language itself that directs the painting’’.

A recurrent aspect is the way Benbow’s work draws on a history of responses to landscape as close quarters. Around 2000, Benbow was in residency in the Swiss mountains but the mountains were inaccessible; by drawing the landscape and rivers in close-up, similarities between microscopic features in the rocks and the landscape at large began to emerge. The microscopic attention to the mineral meant that the rocks could be experiences as surrounding, supportive and tangible rather than intangible and distancing.

This initial research fed in to the processes that initiated the solidification of the picture plane; over time Benbow’s work has begun to take on the appearance of geological abstraction that the term ‘landscope’ seeks to name. It was only after this process of stratification was well under way that Benbow finally located textbooks that contained images of geological sections. She was amazed to see that these images looked like abstract paintings.

In the 1960’s Robert Smithson’s fascination with the geological section initiated a lifelong aesthetic with the condition of sculpture in the age of the silicon chip; with Benbow, however, her microscopic attentiveness to the life of minerals has initiated a body of work that moves between abstraction and association, self-containment and randomness and geometry and gesture, thereby forming a milieu that, in its distinctiveness, is specific and singular to Zoe Benbow.

Tectonic catalogue essay by Kodwo Eshun

Where We Begin to Look

‘Angle on a landscape’ by Deryn Rees-Jones shares her thoughts on space, place and memory explored in her collaborative exhibition ‘Where We Begin To Look’ with Zoe Benbow, which took place at The Glass Tank Oxford Brookes 2013. The article first appeared in Poetry News (click on image to expand).

Rees-Jones-article_ZoeBenbowWhere We Begin to Look Exhibition at The Glass Tank Oxford Brookes 2013 - Zoe Benbow