Sadie Benning is best known for her videos, which she began making at age 15 with a toy Fisher-Price PixelVision camera. These early works, part diary and part performance, were shot in her bedroom and chronicled her coming of age and growing up queer in Milwaukee. From the beginning, the settings for Benning’s narratives have invariably been those interstitial zones—between truth and fiction, and what’s in the present moment and what comes next—in which one might die of boredom, or, like the protagonists in her art, reinvent oneself in the world.
Over time, Benning has increasingly concerned herself with the potential of the generalized or reductive image to convey mood and character. Films of herself quickly gave way to films starring puppets or actors wearing masks, then to animations, and eventually, in a 2007 show at New York City’s Orchard gallery, to storyboardlike drawings in which colorful geometric shapes performed lively pavanes, alternately conjuring the traffic-cam channel and porn films.
The seven minimalist paintings in Benning’s latest exhibition are her most abstract works yet. Nevertheless, as suggested by the show’s title, “Transitional Effects”—a term for the cuts, fades, dissolves or wipes used in film editing to join one scene or shot with the next—they also reflect Benning’s ongoing preoccupation with transitional states and constructed identities.
The intimately scaled works, all done between 2005 and 2011, were unevenly distributed around Participant’s cavernous main room. Made of pieces of MDF spread with joint compound, then sanded and spray-painted, each is composed of two differently colored, geometric forms pushed together to make a rectangle. With their hard-edged compositions and industrial colors, they conjure Minimal art, but a robustly noncompliant version of it-expressive, heterogeneous and a little sad-sack.
Wipe, Magna Gold Shock Blue Light and Ace Fluorescent Rocket Red (2011)—all the works are titled after the spray paint colors used to make them-a celestial blue rectangle with a rectangular bite out of its lower right-hand corner, is retrofitted with a corresponding rectangle painted in hot rose. The missing corner of the squarish, matte yellow Wipe, Montana Gold Citrus and Rust-oleum Gloss Hunter Green (2011) has been replaced with a small shape the color of spruce trees. And in Wipe, Rust-oleum Gloss Regal Red and Ace Fluorescent Sun Glow Orange (2010), a wavering sliver of shiny burgundy completes an irregular polyhedron painted in glowing vermilion.
Playing on headsets in a back room was a soundtrack of mantralike pop songs, written and performed by Benning (a former member of the musical group Le Tigre), whose lyrics, handwritten in marker, flashed across the screen of a video monitor. They ranged from the catchy “A Magical” and punkish “Glass Ceilings” to more complex instrumentals such as “What Am I Supposed To Do?” In conjunction with the soundtrack, Benning’s eccentrically beautiful paintings took on a double life as avatars of the lives-in-progress depicted in her past time-based and two-dimensional work.
Photo: Sadie Benning: Wipe, Magna Gold Shock Blue Light and Ace Fluorescent Rocket Red, 2011, spray-paint, plaster and mixed mediums, 13 by 15 3/8 inches; at Participant.