Frank Benson’s latest cast-bronze sculpture, Human Statue (Jessie), 2011, currently on view at Taxter and Spengemann, depicts a female figure with the attributes of classical marble statuary. Her arms circle out like an off-duty Atlas, a vessel at her feet. She wears fashion-forward sunglasses, prompting a comparison of the formal idealism of classical sculpture and the contemporary’s futuristic idea of beauty.
“This sculpture falls into the ‘Uncanny Valley,'” Benson told A.i.A., speaking of his lifelike sculpture of a male nude, Human Statue (Bronze), 2009, and name-checking the 1978 theory developed by roboticist Masahiro Mori. Mori’s “Uncanny Valley” theory posits that the more lifelike a robot, the more it repelled real humans—by virtue of its ultimate failure to achieve mortality. This new work is less Uncanny Valley than seductive fetish, recalling ancient sculpture and the female musician clones from Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible” music video.
In the past few years, Benson has investigated the “living statue” performers found in urban parks and squares, and who are excluded from fine art. “The living statue is like a folk form of performance art, descended in some way from Gilbert and George [the artists began performing as “Living Statues in the 1960s],” explains Benson. “I’m interested in the fact that what was once seen as a legitimate form of art has descended into kitsch. So then I’m bringing that back into a fine art context.”
Benson’s sculpture has often included the transmogrification of known quantities and classic iconographies, notably with Flag, 2006, a recalibrated American flag. Permanently flying over 25th Street and 10th Avenue in Chelsea, and on exhibition at the Hessel Museum at Bard, for this work the artist digitally mutated the perspective of the traditional stars and stripes to create a flag that appear to be perpetually waving in the wind.
Benson’s intrigue with the human form has origins in early young adulthood. His mother, a fashion illustrator, also created illustrations for medical textbooks, which she would farm out to the teenage Benson. In 2009, when the artist undertook the making of Human Statue, he began with Craigslist. “The original idea was to make a sculpture of a person posing as a sculpture,” he says. “I imagined it clothed, but when the model came into the studio, he really wanted to do it nude.” Benson went with it. “I felt like: this person’s aspiration is to be sculpture. So I helped him achieve that aspiration.”
Another edition of Jessie, identical to the work at Taxter and Spengemann, is currently on view at Overduin and Kite in Los Angeles, and an alternate edition of the sculpture (featuring the base and dress carved in Belgian Black limestone) debuted in Greece this summer, at collector Pauline Karpidas’s Hydra’s Workshop. The ideal setting for the figure, dressed in a flowing, toga-like garments, the classical environment of Greece also highlights the anachronistic subtext of her signature sunglasses, which were derived from vintage Versace frames.
Human statue performers often wear glasses to shield their eyes from the audience, as a way of making themselves more anonymous. “A blinking sculpture is a dead give away that you are in fact looking at a living breathing human,” says Benson.