April 22nd, 2020

James Benning at O-TOWN HOUSE

James Benning in Joshua Tree (December 25), 2011. Photo by Heinz Peter Knes

 

Artist: James Benning

Exhibition Title: Down the Rabbit Hole: JB in JT

Arranged by: Julie Ault and Martin Beck

In Collaboration With: O-Town House, Los Angeles

Note: at the request of O-Town House we have adjusted this project’s presentation.

 

Shortly after I arrived in Joshua Tree some three weeks ago, going into lockdown with Julie and Martin, we decided this was a perfect time to realize our plan for a James Benning exhibition of his works in their home. The idea for a private exhibition of James’s works here was hatched last Christmas, a time when the gang usually descends on Joshua Tree for some quality time at the kitchen table and in front of the fireplace. But now, considering the current circumstances, developing this exhibition as a virtual one seems to resolve several issues—of privacy, access to the public, and keeping busy and engaged with the world.
Down the Rabbit Hole: JB in JT is conceived as part of a continuum with two earlier exhibition projects. The first, Tell It To My Heart, which traveled from the Kunstmuseum Basel to Culturgest in Lisbon and ultimately to Artists Space in New York, was an exhibition based on the artworks Julie has collected over decades, many of them the results of conversations and collaborations with other artists. The curatorial team was equally significant, and the project strove to develop a different mode of mapping the ways art and history touch our lives through relationships and collaborations. The second project in this lineage was inspired by the first, titled 31 Friends by James, for which he made 31 artworks for as many friends. The works were shown at the Marfa Book Company in Marfa, TX, and, after the exhibition ended, were given to their intended owners. James then asked everyone to send him a photograph of the works in their new homes. Those framed photographs were presented at O-Town House. James described 31 Friends as an “attempt to pay homage to the ability of art to produce community as opposed to just commerce.”
The line drawn from Tell It To My Heart to 31 Friends to Down the Rabbit Hole is indicative of an ongoing effort to sustainably engage artistic practices and align the language around this work meaningfully with our lives.
Down the Rabbit Hole  brings together (nearly) all the artworks and some artifacts made by James that are distributed in Julie and Martin’s house and grounds in Joshua Tree. Many of these objects are on permanent display, others were unearthed from drawers and closets. Most objects we photographed as they are installed, others we staged, and, collectively, we put together an annotated checklist, supplying details about the work and some stories of how they came about.
Picking up on the aspirations of Tell It To My Heart and 31 Friends, this exhibition also reads as a conversation. The works are listed in chronological order to make present the unfolding of friendship over many years; the show becoming an extension of ongoing collaborations with a view toward the future. Moments of recollection, such as Down the Rabbit Hole represents, become crucial to finding fresh ways of thinking about the role art can play in the construction of community. By drawing lines across time, as we rummage through James’s traces here at the house, together, we are taking stock, reviewing, and recounting the conversations that grew into plans and then into actions. Enduring interests and subjects, obsessions, and curiosities have become shared experiences and the medium with which we solidify our lives together.

— Scott Cameron Weaver

 

 

After Traylor, 2004
Colored pencil on cardstock
Two parts
6 1/2 × 4 1/4 inches and 6 1/2 × 8 3/8

James often came to Joshua Tree around the holidays to visit our mutual friend Dick Hebdige. In 2003 they came over to our house a couple evenings. Sitting by the fire, James said, “I usually don’t like places like this, but I like it here.” I think he was referring to all the colors. When Dick and James came over the following Christmas, JB brought this wonderful gift. It seems reasonable to me now, but at the time, copying Bill Traylor imagery, and doing it well, was astonishing. (JA)

 

 

Two sugar pine cones (Pinus lambertiana) from Hatchet Peak near Pine Flat, ca. 2005
Approx. 11 × 4 × 4 inches each

When coming to JT from his place in the Sierras, James sometimes brings a couple of large pine cones with him. We integrated most of them into the landscape, and some have disintegrated over the years. These two we kept on a stand on the patio. They sometimes get blown off by the wind and we find them somewhere between the cactuses. (MB)

 

 

Clock, 2006
9 inches diameter
Acrylic paint on clock

I needed to keep busy, part of my nature, so inspired by the many cans of paint in the garage (due to the many different colors used inside and outside of the house [what is it 36? I think it’s 42]), I decided to paint a clock I had just found in a local thrift store using a few of those colors. (JB)

 

Continue the exhibition after the jump.

 

 

AFTER JESSE HOWARD (DETAIL) J.B., 2007
Colored pencil on cardstock
Two parts
6 1/2 × 4 1/4 and 6 1/2 × 8 ½
Pencil (verso of larger part):
A MAN HAS NO RIGHT
TO DEFEND HIS FAMILY
DECATUR. ILL. OCT. 11. 1961 OF
ALL THE UN=AMERICAN. UN=CIVIL-
IZED WAY OF LIFE! ARREST: A MA-
N AND THROW HIM IN JAIL! BECA-
USE HE HAD NO PERMIT TO CON-
STRUCT A FALLOUT SHELTER,
FOR HIMSELF=AND=HIS=FAMILY.
JESSE HOWARD

This was the second set of drawings made for this two-part frame. The first set was two Bill Traylor drawings (see After Traylor, 2004), but they looked rather silly so small, so I replaced them with these two truncated drawings of a Jesse Howard painting that I copied and is hanging in the replica Kaczynski cabin I built in the Sierras. I’m not sure what happened to the first set. (JB)

Once taken out of the frame, the first set, After Traylor (2004), was kept in the bottom shelf of a covered sideboard, visible right when opening its door. The unprotected drawings were vulnerable. This display, if one could call it that, always felt a bit treacherous and, recently, Julie packed the drawings in glassine and cardboard and stored them safely in the Christmas closet. (MB)

 

 

Freedom Club, 2009
Wood carving
2 × 9 7/8 inches

Kaczynski embedded a signature of sorts—the letters FC—in the bombs he made from 1980 on, and in the mid-nineties signed letters to public figures and editors FC. FC (Freedom Club) was supposed to be an anarchist terrorist group. Kaczynski’s 1995 letter to Scientific American is worth repeating: “Scientists and engineers constantly gamble with human welfare, and we see today the effects of some of their lost gambles: ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect, cancer-causing chemicals to which we cannot avoid exposure, accumulating nuclear waste for which a sure method of disposal has not yet been found, the crowding, noise and pollution that have followed industrialization, massive extinction of species and so forth…. We emphasize the negative PHYSICAL consequences of scientific advances often are completely unforeseeable….  But far more difficult to foresee are the negative SOCIAL consequences of technological progress. The engineers who began the industrial revolution never dreamed their work would result in the creation of an industrial proletariat or the economic boom and bust cycle.”
This carving was a step in James’s process of furnishing his Kaczynski cabin. After a while, he replaced it with one reading FC, and I asked if I could have this one. (JA)

 

 

James Benning and Sadie Benning
Untitled, 2010
Pencil on cardstock, framed
Two parts (left part drawn by Sadie Benning, right part drawn by James Benning)
Drawing: 6 1/2 × 4 1/4 inches and 6 1/2 × 8 1/2 inches
Frame: 8 × 14 1/2 inches

This was the third set of drawings made for this two-part frame. I was going to continue to change the drawings for this frame, but since this is the only collaboration between Sadie and I, it seemed best to end the series here. (JB)

James and Sadie like to settle on the couch in front of the fireplace when they visit. One Christmas we got a new couch. Knowing that we wouldn’t be home when they arrived, and that they would immediately take their places in front of the fire, we wrapped a large ribbon around the couch and made it an in situ present to them. (MB)

 

 

After Traylor by J.B., 2010
Colored pencil on paper
Drawing: 12 3/4 × 8 1/2 inches
Frame: 21 1/2 × 14 1/4 inches
Pencil on backing board:
APARTMENT FOR PEOPLE TO GO AND THEN
COME OUT UP A ELEVATOR AND THEN JUMP
OUT THE WINDOW. ONLY THE MANAGERS CAN
GO THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR. NAME OF THE
APARTMENT IS “THE PEOPLE’S APARTMENT”. 100
PEOPLE LIVE IN IT, EVERONES THE SAME AGE,
BUT SOME ARE 10, 20, AND 40.
by VANESSA

 

 

Vanessa’s name is Vanessa Basilio. She was about eleven at the time, 2010. She was a CAP student. CAP is Community Arts Partnership. CalArts students teach kids in disadvantaged communities, and then the kids have a show at CalArts. When I saw her piece (house and text), I was most impressed and asked her if I could trade her an artwork for it. She was excited to make a trade, but told me she wanted to see what I could offer. I told her I could trade her a house for her house. The next day I met her and her mother, and showed her the After Traylor house. She really liked it and we made the trade, and I took a picture of her holding her house but can’t find the photo. (JB)

James made another version of the After Traylor (2010) drawing that he gave Vanessa for our house; he transcribed Vanessa’s description of her house on the frame’s backing board. A photograph of the work by Heinz Peter Knes, showing the drawing in context at the house, adorns the back cover of the first volume of Tell It To My Heart. Proofing the catalog, none of us noticed the image was reversed, the bird looking to the left rather than to the right. (MB)

 

 

(FC) Two Cabins by JB, 2011
Edited by Julie Ault
Contributions by Julie Ault, James Benning, Dick Hebdige, Theodore J. Kaczynski, and Henri David Thoreau
Designed by Martin Beck
Published by A.R.T. Press, New York

I still intend to write something about the Two Cabins constellation and Thoreau and Kaczynski copies James gave me. (JA)

 

 

After Thoreau, 2011
Ink on chipboard, framed
Drawing: 10 × 8 inches
Frame: 18 1/2 × 15 1/2 inches

This is a copy of one of Henry David Thoreau’s many drawings that he made as the town surveyor of Concord, Massachusetts. The frame is tramp art from the 1930s. (JB)

The autodidactic orientation of both Thoreau and Kaczynski finds a correlation in Benning, who takes immense pleasure in learning.
Ted Kaczynski created a numeric code to shield his most self-incriminating journal entries about his bombing campaign. JB meticulously copied the dense document and hung it in his Kaczynski cabin. He made a second copy for me, but it’s not in Joshua Tree. Empathy is palpable in his copies, and so is James, who leaves traces. I regard the reproduced TK code and the Thoreau survey as outlying companions linked by James’s acts of copying, thereby completing the triad of primary protagonists in FC: Two Cabins by JB. (JA)

 

 

intertitle study for Stemple Pass, 2012
Typewriting on paper
11 × 9 1/4 inches

I spent a few weeks working on Stemple Pass at the kitchen table in JT. This was made while I was working on the intertitles. I believe there is a photo of me doing just that, in the first Tell It To My Heart catalog. (JB)

Tell It To My Heart was an exhibition about the artworks given to and acquired by Julie over a few decades. For the catalog, the works were photographed in situ, “at home” in our NY apartment and the JT house, installed on the walls, packed up in closets, under the couch, in drawers, and other odd places. Some of the images didn’t even show artworks, just the environment. The only person appearing in the catalog’s photography is James, seen from behind, with headphones on, sitting at the JT kitchen table, editing a film. (MB)

 

 

After Beck 11 × 15 3/4, 2013
Acrylic paint on wood panel
11 × 15 3/4 inches

Martin gave me a painting of his that was hanging on the wall in JT. It was a painting that I always admired. I was going to make an exact copy of it and replace it in the same place. It proved to be too difficult for me to reproduce, so I made this painting instead. It was the same dimensions as the painting I tried to copy. (JB)

Back in 1996, I gave a painting I had made as an art student to Julie. It was the first painting I considered to be quite good and therefore was precious to me. Soon after we got the house in JT, the painting moved out here, which is where James saw it. Expressing his admiration, he wondered if there were others like it. I had a similar same-size one from that time in storage at my parents house in Austria. James and I then cooked up a trade: I would give him that painting and he would copy it for me. When visiting my parents next I took the painting to NY and sent it to him in the mail. Quite a few months later, at Christmas out in JT, James gave me his version of it. While James was working on the copy, Sadie painted a white version as a companion piece. Unbeknownst of the impending gifts, I had made two drawings, to give them as presents, one for James, one for Sadie, both saying “the same thing can be done in different ways.” (MB)

 

 

Thinking about the Unabomber, 1987/2014
Enlarged photobooth photograph, framed
Image: 4 3/4 × 4 3/4 inches
Frame: 12 1/2 × 12 1/2 inches

Thinking about the Unabomber, 1987/2014
Enlarged photobooth photograph, framed
Image: 4 3/4 × 4 3/4 inches
Frame: 12 1/2 × 12 1/2 inches

In 1987 a woman witnessed a man wearing aviator glasses and a hooded sweatshirt placing a package outside a computer store in Salt Lake City that turned out to be a bomb. The widely circulated police sketch made from her description was the first representation of the Unabomber. (JA)

The last year I lived in NYC, Sadie visited me and we went to Coney Island and made this photo in a photobooth. I was thinking about the Unabomber because a number of my friends and I thought the Unabomber might have been Leo Burt, the only person never to be arrested for the Sterling Hall bombing at the University of Wisconsin, in protest against the Vietnam War. In 2014 I re-photographed the photo. (JB)

 

 

Three Paper Airplanes, 2014
Signed contract; three one hundred-dollar bills, folded
Laser print on paper, framed
Print: 9 3/4 × 8 inches
Frame: 12 1/2 × 10 1/2 inches
Bills: 1 1/2 × 6 × 1 1/4 inches each

Julie bought this piece for $600 and paid with 563 single dollar bills. I then gave the three secretaries (the three women who keep the CalArts film school running) $200 each. The piece was in the spirit of Douglas Huebler—he was teaching at CalArts in the 1980s—and was one of the reasons I took a job there. I like his art very much, and he was an amazing guy. (JB)

For several years, whenever James needed a book for his Kaczynski library and research into artists he was copying, he asked me to scope out the possibilities online and order the books, since I had a credit card. This provided a productive exchange about the books’ contents and various editions. Periodically I’d give him the tally. On one occasion, he owed me $563 and paid me in one-dollar bills stuffed into a big envelope. Not needing the cash at that moment, I kept the reimbursement “as is.” A few years later, James told me about his paper airplanes made from one-hundred dollar bills and said he wanted to get more than their value to split the money between the three women that run the film department, who do a lot for him. So I pulled out the envelope and made up the difference to $600. (JA)

This work was really hard to photograph—it is usually stored in a protective box in a cabinet. Scott and I kept moving the paper airplanes around the house and tried about a dozen different settings until we settled on this one. Another image we shot looks very similar except that the hundred-dollar bills sit on a pink ground with a yellow glow coming in from the sides. Julie liked the green ground better, so we went with that. (MB)

 

 

After Ono by J.B., 2014
Photocopy, framed
Print: 7 1/4 × 5 3/8 inches
Frame: 11 1/8 × 9 1/8 inches

This is a reproduction of a call for entries by Yoko Ono for a show (This is Not Here) at Emerson Museum, Syracuse, NY, to open on October 9, 1971. (JB)

 

 

After Ono by J.B., 2014
Photocopy, framed
Print: 7 1/4 × 5 3/8 inches
Frame: 10 7/8 × 8 3/4 inches

 

 

After Warhol (smiling), 2014
Serigraph, silver and black oil-based ink on paper
Print: 25 × 24 1/2 inches
Frame: 26 1/2 × 26 inches

I love this sexy exuberant photograph of Andy Warhol, grabbing Parker Tyler’s crotch. JB made it in the spirit of Warhol, as part of a diptych, the other half being After Noland (smiling). I’m often amazed by the images and narratives James annexes and activates. (JA)

 

 

After Noland (smiling), 2014
Serigraph, silver and black oil-based ink on paper
Print: 25 × 24 1/2 inches
Frame: 26 1/2 × 26 inches

For quite a few years, I’ve been spending summers in JT, mostly by myself. The only friend who doesn’t mind the heat and visits regularly is James. During the hot days, we both work and tool around, he under the covered patio, I in the garage studio. In the evenings, I prepare food; he makes gin-and-tonics, we listen to music and talk about work and life. At first, I wasn’t sure why James thought I should have an image of Ruth Ann Moorehead (“Ouish” of the Manson girls). I know he likes Cady Noland’s work and I do too. I love the image and, of course, understand why he chose it. (MB)

 

 

Thirty-one Friends (October), 2015
Published by Marfa Book Company, Marfa, TX

In the years 2014–15 James Benning made 31 works of art for 31 friends, and produced a book, recounting a story of each friendship and describing the works created with them in mind. Some of the works referenced work by other artists—Andy Warhol, Marie Menken, Bill Traylor, Jean-Luc Godard, Jesse Howard, Henry Darger, Henry David Thoreau, Cady Noland, Robert Smithson, Jasper Johns, Miroslav Tichý, and Ted Kaczynski—inferring another set of (imagined) friends.
In the summer of 2015, these works were exhibited together along with the publication at the Marfa Book Company, in Marfa, TX. At the show’s closing event, the artworks were removed from the walls and given to each of the friends for whom they’d been made. The works then traveled to places near and far—Bastrop, Texas, Duisburg, Germany, Sydney, Austria, downtown Los Angeles….
The final chapter of this project happened in 2018 at O-Town House, and consisted of the photographs James asked each friend to take of his gifted artwork in situ— gathered together from their disparate locations. 31 Friends represented a self-professed exercise in prioritizing the mechanisms in art that foster genuine examples of community. (SCW)

 

 

June 2nd, 1984, 2015
Acrylic paint on thermometer
15 1/2 × 2 3/4 inches

In the summer of 2015 James generously helped me with the shoot and edit for the Last Night film which is based on the records David Mancuso played on June 2nd, 1984, at the last party at the Prince Street Loft. To keep the sound clean we had to film with windows closed and swamp cooler off, making for a rather hot environment. To get a little break, one afternoon we went to the 99 Cent Store where James bought a thermometer. He painted it pink and, after thinking for a while what other decoration it should have, decided on June 2nd 1984. (MB)

 

 

After Chris B., 2018
Acrylic paint on match-head on nickel coin in wrapping paper
1 × 2 inches
Edition 7/20

After Chris B., 2018
Acrylic paint on match-head on nickel coin in wrapping paper
1 × 2 inches
Edition 19/20

I made this work in JT while recuperating from major surgery. (JB)

James was pretty under the weather after his surgery. We were all worried about his vulnerability and waiting it out. One morning I was going to the store and asked if anyone needed anything. James suddenly perked up and said he needed twenty nickels, some metallic paper, and a box of red-tip matchsticks. I couldn’t find red matches anywhere, only Diamond-brand green tips. He then asked for red paint and a small paintbrush and proceeded to meticulously color twenty of the green tips red. With his obsession and ambition restored, we knew he was recovering. (JA)

James made this edition as gifts for friends while convalescing under Julie and Martin’s and Dick Hebdige’s doting care in Joshua Tree, staying at their places a few days each, wearing the pajamas bought for him by Sharon Lockhart. The work was inspired by the 1979 installation, The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, by Chris Burden. The original work, now in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, comprises fifty thousand nickels and match sticks, all placed on the floor in a grid, with the red match-heads all pointing in the same direction and the words of the title painted across the wall behind them. With each red match and nickel representing a Soviet tank, Burden’s installation spoke to the escalating arms race at the height of the Cold-War. (SCW)

 

 

Ault + Beck, 2019
Acrylic paint on wood board
9 1/4 × 23 inches
Sign reads:
AULT + BECK
9224 VIA ROCOSA
PSALMS=148=8

Soon after we bought the house, Jennifer Bolande and Cannon Hudson stayed here for a few weeks. They were having some packages sent and, in order for the carrier to find the house, painted a sign showing our names and address. Over the years, the sun burned off the paint and made it illegible. When James arrived for the recent Christmas holidays, we asked him to make a new sign, which he eagerly took on, commenting: “Now I have something to do and don’t have to stare at the walls.” His sign uses Jesse Howard’s lettering and cites a psalm Howard included in one of his paintings. Psalm 148:8 reads “lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding.” The day after we installed the sign, it snowed—a rare and lovely occurrence in the desert. (MB)

 

 

Genius Christ, 2019
Acrylic paint on wood board
5 7/8 × 12 7/8 inches

In celebration of our favorite genius. (JB)

 

 

Love Saves the Day, 2019
Acrylic paint on wood board
10 7/8 × 12 7/8 inches

Once James finished the two signs and needed more things to do in order to stay busy we started thinking of other signs that might be needed. I asked him if he could make one for the garage studio, referencing the Loft and David Mancuso. We decided on the phrase Mancuso used on the invitation to the first Loft party in 1970. (MB)

JB has copied Jesse Howard’s signs for many years, and replica signs figure into his recent projects Found Fragments and Alabama. A hand-painted recycled license plate that hangs from a thick rusty chain crossing his driveway in Pine Flat reads: “POSTED Henry David Thoreau KEEP OUT.” For some time previously, it read, “POSTED T.J. Kaczynski KEEP OUT.” (JA)

 

 

Sketches for Genius Christ and Love Saves the Day, 2019
Laser print and pencil on paper
5 × 13 inches and 8 1/4 × 17 1/4 inches

These scraps of paper contain the scale calculations and printouts James used to transfer the sign layouts to the boards. They now are in the same place in the sideboard which the two-part After Traylor (2004) drawing inhabited for a long time. (MB)

 

 

after Darger (Welcome), 2020
Acrylic paint on garage door
6 feet 11 inches × 25 feet

This work doesn’t exist yet. James had the idea for it over the holidays but wanted to wait for warmer weather to paint it. We thought including a mock-up here might insure it happens—hopefully soon as he can safely come to JT. (MB)

We were all talking about the influx of people to Joshua Tree over the last few years and envisioning a message to anyone coming up the driveway who didn’t belong there that they’re in the wrong place (or, perhaps, the right one). Naturally, the Vivian Girls came to mind, and James had just the Darger image on his laptop to extract from, Second Battle of McAllister Run they are pursued. The section he plans to superimpose on the garage door shows Glandelinians bearing bayonets, hunting for the girls, who hide behind trees, as if to say: welcome to the realm of the unreal. (JA)

 

Images courtesy of O-TOWN HOUSE, Los Angeles

 

Shortly after I arrived in Joshua Tree some three weeks ago, going into lockdown with Julie and Martin, we decided this was a perfect time to realize our plan for a James Benning exhibition of his works in their home. The idea for a private exhibition of James’s works here was hatched last Christmas, a time when the gang usually descends on Joshua Tree for some quality time at the kitchen table and in front of the fireplace. But now, considering the current circumstances, developing this exhibition as a virtual one seems to resolve several issues—of privacy, access to the public, and keeping busy and engaged with the world.
Down the Rabbit Hole: JB in JT is conceived as part of a continuum with two earlier exhibition projects. The first, Tell It To My Heart, which traveled from the Kunstmuseum Basel to Culturgest in Lisbon and ultimately to Artists Space in New York, was an exhibition based on the artworks Julie has collected over decades, many of them the results of conversations and collaborations with other artists. The curatorial team was equally significant, and the project strove to develop a different mode of mapping the ways art and history touch our lives through relationships and collaborations. The second project in this lineage was inspired by the first, titled 31 Friends by James, for which he made 31 artworks for as many friends. The works were shown at the Marfa Book Company in Marfa, TX, and, after the exhibition ended, were given to their intended owners. James then asked everyone to send him a photograph of the works in their new homes. Those framed photographs were presented at O-Town House. James described 31 Friends as an “attempt to pay homage to the ability of art to produce community as opposed to just commerce.”
The line drawn from Tell It To My Heart to 31 Friends to Down the Rabbit Hole is indicative of an ongoing effort to sustainably engage artistic practices and align the language around this work meaningfully with our lives.
Down the Rabbit Hole  brings together (nearly) all the artworks and some artifacts made by James that are distributed in Julie and Martin’s house and grounds in Joshua Tree. Many of these objects are on permanent display, others were unearthed from drawers and closets. Most objects we photographed as they are installed, others we staged, and, collectively, we put together an annotated checklist, supplying details about the work and some stories of how they came about.
Picking up on the aspirations of Tell It To My Heart and 31 Friends, this exhibition also reads as a conversation. The works are listed in chronological order to make present the unfolding of friendship over many years; the show becoming an extension of ongoing collaborations with a view toward the future. Moments of recollection, such as Down the Rabbit Hole represents, become crucial to finding fresh ways of thinking about the role art can play in the construction of community. By drawing lines across time, as we rummage through James’s traces here at the house, together, we are taking stock, reviewing, and recounting the conversations that grew into plans and then into actions. Enduring interests and subjects, obsessions, and curiosities have become shared experiences and the medium with which we solidify our lives together.

— Scott Cameron Weaver

 

Link: James Benning at O-TOWN HOUSE

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