Jhana Millers Gallery
16 July – 8 August 2020
16 July – 8 August 2020
Essay by Lucy Jackson
“Historical reenactments inhabit an uncomfortable territory. The dual nature of performing conflict, both fake and authentic, is an obvious source of unease. But beyond that sits a more complex ache.”1
Will Bennett’s paintings feature alien-like neon green figures in strange, foreign, and almost religious settings. They might appear as something from a parallel universe, or at least a science-fiction movie. But the truth of their origin is not in another galaxy. Uneasy, uncomfortable and awkward, the paintings battle with authenticity, history, memory, rewriting and reenacting moments from the past.
Bennett’s exhibition, Polyester Soldiers Stitch Witches emerged from an innocent interest in the history of the colour purple, its ties to royalty and how Romans acquired purple pigment. From his research, Bennett stumbled upon Imperium Romana, a Roman reenactment group. The group reenacts displays of the Roman Empire within the New Zealand landscape.
Coming across photographs of Imperium Romana, Bennett found an archive that was a gateway into ideas he was already grappling with, such as authenticity and a disconnection with the land alongside the New Zealand Gothic. Bennett began his research into the politics of reenactment and its intersection with the art world. He came across photographer Edie Winograde, who observed and photographed American civil war reenactments and Jeremy Deller who recreated the Battle of Orgreave, a riot between coal miners and riot police in the United Kingdom.
In Polyester Soldiers Stitch Witches, Bennett combines the politics of reenactment with another of his interests, UFOs. The result is a series of paintings that do not look like paintings of history, or terribly authentic. Instead, the paintings straddle a world somewhere in between, with Bennett describing the paintings’ participants as aliens in a foreign landscape.
Bennett injects satire into his series, and while reenactment groups might take things very seriously, he does not. The seriousness of the participants for the reenactments are undercut somewhat by the alien-colours, globular figures and neon orange frames of the paintings. In Sci-fi Roman, the participant is dressed wearing ugg boots, with a bucket on his head. Bennett explains to me that he is somewhat an outlier, he was dressed in Steampunk costume, and just walked into the reenactment. It was simply “too good” not to paint.
Yet among these moments of hilarity is something “quite dire and gothic about the series”. Darkness sluices through the fluorescent palette, seen in works such as Procession in a line of religiously marching figures or Cloaks, where characters appear to be meeting under the moonlight. This darkness Bennett attributes to living in Taranaki.
The title Polyester Soldiers Stitch Witches derives from the vernacular cloaks used by reenactment groups within their inner circles. ‘Polyester Soldiers’ refer to the “casual weekend guys” who are not there to be truly authentic, and references the materials they wear - we know enough to understand polyester was not available during the times they are reenacting. They are also known as ‘farbs’, and their lack of authenticity is often also obvious to reenactment spectators. ‘Stitch Witches’, otherwise known as ‘Progressive’ are the “ultra-authentic” reenactors, wearing the more accurate items of clothing, stitched and made in-keeping to the time they are portraying. These reenactors even go as far to mimic the eating habits of the time, fully immersing themselves in the reenactment. The nuances of these terms and the authenticity of reenactment and its results feel dangerous. Could more authentic reenactments have a stake in the rewriting and reinterpretation of history?
How people interpret the authenticity of reenactments could lead to biased understandings of history. Something Bennett is acutely aware of is the potential of retraumatising that could come from reenactments. Often reenactments are of battles and fights from the ancient world, but occasionally they can be of standalone events, such as hangings or events of recent history, for example Nazi reenactments. Bennett is resistant to enter an exploration of these spaces, and he is very conscious of his own part in the narrative of reenactment. However, the artist indicates it is something that weighs on his mind, given its presence in the reenactment space.
In Polyester Soldiers Stitch Witches Bennett experiments with technical elements. By beginning to wipe paint away from the surface with a rag, the painter discovered his canvases could have watercolour qualities by using oil paint. Bennett uses pure colour (straight from the tube) to debunk the myth that to be a good painter you must mix your own paints. He then uses oil sticks to highlight areas of the canvas beside the darkness he gradually builds. Neon-orange oil stick frame each painting, picking up the grain of the linen canvas, and the idea coming from Michaël Borremans’s A knife in the eye documentary. The final paintings display a confident mysteriousness. Pure, unadulterated colours collide with impeccable layers of paint, making it impossible to understand the construction of the painting. Although some may call it a change in painting style, Bennett sees it as progression.
In Ultramarine Triangle, Bennett increases the scale of his painting. Inspired by the smaller version of the same painting, the decision to paint a larger work came from Bennett’s love of the ultramarine blue triangle in the background. To translate the painting from smaller to larger canvas, Bennett paints from the painting, as opposed to a photograph. This action is a reenactment of his own painting process. There is a ritualistic, almost religious quality to the work that Bennett draws on to explore what impact this might have at a larger scale.
The awkwardness of acting, and the uneasiness of being watched is prevalent in Bennett’s work. Another influence is American painter Eric Fischl, who explores these ideas in his Krefeld Project (2002). Fischl used the Museum Haus Esters and hired actors to live for a day in the house, and during the day he took photographs which he later went through and picked out moments to paint from. Bennett explains that the unease between the actors, the situation, even about being photographed perhaps, is always present in the resulting paintings. There is an ambiguity in what is happening. This obscurity is something Bennett engages with in his own work. In taking photos from Imperium Romana, Bennett is staging his own set and his role becomes to capture the uneasiness of the photograph within the canvas.
Bennett’s interest in histories and the place of memory permeates into his interest in his own family history. He is familiar with his recent family history, from when they arrived in New Zealand in 1855, and when Bennett’s great, great, great grandmother, Mary Jane Bennett, was the first and only female New Zealand lighthouse keeper. However, Bennett acknowledges a disconnect prior to his family’s arrival on these shores, knowing little about his family in the United Kingdom. He attributes some of this disconnect to the New Zealand Gothic, and a general anxiety to this ambiguity of the past and the detachment from the landscape. What’s home? Bennett acknowledges that perhaps he feels like the reenactors featured in Polyester Soldiers Stitch Witches, performing a hybrid history, looking into the past and not quite reaching authenticity. Perhaps the figures in Polyester Soldiers Stitch Witches are not the only aliens in a foreign landscape?
Will Bennett lives and paints in Wellington and completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours) at Massey University Wellington in 2016. Bennett’s painting practice experiments with notions of the New Zealand Gothic, photography, memory, the ordinary everyday and moments from the past.
Bennett has had several solo and group exhibitions across Aotearoa. Recent exhibitions include: Always Forever Now, Summer Selection and One (Jhana Millers Gallery, 2019-2020); Burnt Bridge (Anderson Rhodes Gallery, 2019); and Gone with Makura (Precinct 35, 2017). Bennett was a finalist in the Adam Portrait Award at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in 2014.
1. Boyd, K. 2018. How American West Reenactments Restore and Rewrite History: hyperallergic.com/427305/how-american-west-reenactments-restore-and-rewrite-history
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