Silk of Faded Gold
Jason Benjamin climbs out of his swag and wastes no time getting to work. The light is right, bleached in that post-dawn way that casts strange and surreal shadows. During the course of the long solo day those shadows creep across the plains, shuddering as the clouds distort the light, which eventually succumbs to a blaze of blood-red glory.
The artist doesn’t move a great deal on these sojourns. He doesn’t have to. The world moves for him, playing its tricks of hue within the natural chiaroscuro of the granite outcrops of the Monaro region of South Eastern New South Wales.
The last time I had seen Benjamin was over ten years ago on an extraordinary trip to Lake Eyre and the Australian centre with such fellow artists as Tim Storrier, David Larwill and Rodney Pople. We were all drunk on the landscape (and, to be honest, drunk in that other way that forms amazing camaraderie). Benjamin’s almost obsessive love of the landscape was in abundant proof, but back then, it was captured via the lens of his camera before being rendered onto canvas back in his Sydney studio.
Things have changed over that decade. Benjamin himself has taken on a more rugged and weathered appearance and his work has done the same. He now resembles a character from the novels of one of his favourite authors, Cormac McCarthy and, again, his work has taken on some of the harsh flavor of McCarthy’s writing. Gone is the more European palette of earlier works, replaced by the more stark hues of the Australian outback, as can be so hauntingly witnessed in the fiery dust-storm of such paintings as Now And Forever – fire.
Robert Hughes once famously – and accurately – commented that when Europeans discovered America they discovered freedom, but when Europeans made it to the Antipodes they found a prison. Something of this bleak assessment has found its way into the core of the history of Australian art, from the doom-laden works of John Glover in the Colonial days to the bleak surrealist impulses of the Angry Penguins through to the more contemporary sense of the apocalyptic seen in the works of Peter Booth and Philip Hunter and in George Miller’s Mad Max.
Beneath Benjamin’s rain-laden thunderclouds lies the cruel irony of the land of drought. The eucalypts stand as talismans of deprivation, the granite boulders the headstones of a dying world. Benjamin captures the strange tricks of light that are seen nowhere else on the planet, the way that sunlight carves through the clouds creating an eerie sense of simultaneous movement and stillness, the gentle eddies of air captured by the soaring eagles that so often appear stationary mid-air, their cries piercing the sky.
Best known for his monumental works on canvas, it is Jason Benjamin’s rarely exhibited and extremely intimate works on paper that reveal a technical adroitness all too rarely seen in contemporary Australian art.
A part of this revelation stems from Benjamin being invited to undertake an ongoing artists’ residency at The Australian Museum in Sydney. Sitting in the Director’s office she asked him what he might like to tackle. Benjamin had no idea. And in that moment of blankness he spied upon her walls the encased taxidermed bird life. There was the mission; to bring these literally stuffed animals to life and the result recalls the fastidious line work of Albrecht Dürer.
But Benjamin did not choose his creatures at random, specifically selecting only the creatures that inhabit the locale where the paintings reside. “Portraits of the residents so to speak,” Benjamin says.
The resurrectionist in Benjamin went to work. The dull glass eyes took on character and mischievousness and, at times, malevolence as can be clearly seen in the Yes said the Sky series. The dull feathers and marsupial fur took on a glisten and shine. They came alive.
Something similar was occurring in the landscape. Where once the imagery had been caught on film, it was now captured by the lead of the pencil, in the process torturing the surface of the paper until the works take on the look and feel of imagery from a far previous century. Indeed, they take on something of the hue and texture of a prose description of the Australian landscape by George W. Lambert (1873-1930):
“The sun is down and ‘Micalago’ is at rest
Like Chinese silk of faded gold, the grass…”
Australian Ghosts recall ancient parchment, indeed, like silk of faded gold and perhaps not surprisingly another influence on Benjamin was the Australian artist Rosalie Gascoigne (1917-1999) who Benjamin spent time with and painted a portrait of in 1997. The two artists could not be more different in technical approach, but both endeavor, and succeed in capturing the willful atmospherics of the land.
In the last ten years it seems that Jason Benjamin has travelled the extremes, physically, psychologically and aesthetically. This is, without a doubt, his most powerful body of work to date. The future beckons, harsh, unruly but without doubt beatifically.
– Ashley Crawford