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"Lynda Benglis: Wax Paintings & Ceramic Sculptures"

It's time for Lynda Benglis to become cool again

Wearing only sunglasses and standing with a huge, veined dildo emerging from between her legs, Lynda Benglis appeared gleaming and naked in an ad in the November 1974 issue of ArtForum. The ad caused an art-world scandal. Texas Gallery had already been showing Benglis for two years when it came out, and they embraced the controversy. When Benglis cast the (doubleheaded) accoutrement from the photograph in bronze, they showed the resulting sculpture, Smile(1974), and put an image of it on the postcards they sent out for the show. Texas Gallery owner Fredrika Hunter doesn't remember the postcard causing much of a stir at the time, theorizing that it was either because people didn't know it was a sex toy, or did — and didn't want to let on they knew by complaining about it.

In 1974, Benglis's pinup-style two-page spread was a brash, smartass swipe at the macho male art establishment. It came from a woman whose organic, fluid, post-minimalist art was the antithesis of the hard-edged egocentric oeuvre of an über-minimalist like Donald Judd. Visually, the ad had little to do with Benglis's sculpture — the resulting Smile was something of an anomaly — but conceptually it had everything to do with it.

Texas Gallery's current exhibition, "Lynda Benglis: Wax Paintings & Ceramic Sculptures,"presents recent wax paintings and slightly less recent ceramic sculpture from the artist. In a 2002 review, Roberta Smith of The New York Times aptly characterized the goal of Benglis's body of sculptural work as "to give liquidity permanent and dramatic form."

Untitled (#6) calls to mind blood and fat...
Courtesy of Texas Gallery
Untitled (#6) calls to mind blood and fat...
The show's real standouts are the ceramic sculptures.
Courtesy of Texas Gallery
The show's real standouts are the ceramic sculptures.
...while Untitled (#12) looks like frosting.
Courtesy of Texas Gallery
...while Untitled (#12) looks like frosting.

The objects in the Texas Gallery show are smaller-scale and quieter than past Benglis works; there are no massive pours of latex or polyurethane foam, or waves of cast aluminum. But the encaustic wax paintings from 2005–06 do call to mind earlier, larger wax works from the 1970s, in which Benglis accumulated thick drips and layers of multicolored wax on plaster or Masonite planks and hung them on the wall. They were riveting yet kind of icky. In this show, the encrustations of wax are more painting-like, occurring on tiny canvases or little wooden panels, layered and dripped. The colors go from earthy to muddied to lurid. Untitled (#6) has two visceral smears of blood-red with yellowy, fatty-looking clumps. The predominantly peachy-pink-and-white Untitled (#12) looks like someone scraped the frosting off a quinceañera cake. They're appealingly tactile — I had to restrain myself from touching and racking my fingernail across the blobs and smudges of wax.

But the real standouts in the show are Benglis's ceramic sculptures from the 1990s. They're even more tactile than the wax. Benglis is from Lake Charles, Louisiana, and received her BFA from Sophie Newcomb College, a coordinate women's college at Tulane University in New Orleans. Antiques Roadshow viewers will recognize the name Newcomb from the famed Newcomb pottery decorated by art students from the college from 1895 to 1940. But back then, the pots were thrown by men and then decorated by the women.

Ceramics is one of those "craft" materials that you can do incredible things with, but hardly anybody ever seems to. It's pretty rare to see it used well in a fine-art context. Often, ceramic sculpture is made by people with a heavy craft focus; you end up with objects that are adventurous in terms of bowls, vases and coffee mugs, but not very interesting in a sculptural sense. This is not the case with Benglis's work.

Her ceramic sculptures are casually displayed on a big wooden table in the center of the gallery. There are no remnants of utilitarian vessels in this work. The clay feels fluid, seemingly writhing and erupting. Benglis's glaze is thick, thin and sporadic — it recalls the smears and drips of wax or pours of polyurethane from her other works.

The glazes are amazing, frozen as they oozed and dripped over the clay. One is dense and black, bubbled and cracked like a lava field; another is a viscous-looking butter-yellow; another, a pale, flat, chalky blue. You can feel the physicality of Benglis's interaction with her materials.

Lynda Benglis is one of those artists you learned about in art history class but whose work you rarely see in person. Hunter theorizes it's because the work isn't currently considered "cool enough." That's a shame. Benglis also has a ton of video work from the '70s I've only seen snippets from. There is something fascinating about a Southern, female artist who could send a gutsy, naked fuck-you to the art establishment, make massive, fluid sculptures on a scale to rival her macho male counterparts, and then take a material associated with dinnerware and create powerful, compact tabletop sculpture. It's time for Benglis to become cool again.

 
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