Erik Benson “Builds” Paintings that Deconstruct the Urban Decay of Public Housing

Oct 11, 2016 10:41PM

Public housing projects in the United States were first introduced in the mid-20th century. But the concept, first associated with progressive ideals—a New Deal alternative to slums—lost favor in the public eye as cheaply built, poorly maintained high-rises became ubiquitous.

It’s a complex social and architectural history that Lawrence Vale, professor of urban design and planning at MIT, unpacks in various texts, including his seminal book From the Puritan to the Projects (2000). It’s a story also explored by Erik Benson in “Stacks,” his latest series of paintings, now on view at Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art in New York.

These new paintings are landscapes or cityscapes, depending how you define those terms. Many of the works show only a single high-rise seen from a distance, while in the foreground sit the titular stacks: colorful assemblages of mundane objects—vases, cinderblocks, branches, air fresheners, etc.—“a kind of totem of the everyday,” Benson has said.

By displaying these familiar symbols of daily life in the same scenes as the stark, rationalist angles and lines of towering buildings, Benson draws attention to the fundamental contrast between the housing projects and the human lives that play out within their walls.

After all, these low-rent dwellings were originally intended as a tool for social betterment. Yet in many cases, as Vale has noted in his academic work, the buildings and the bare lands around them weren’t just eyesores—they became bastions of criminal activity. In Benson’s paintings, the buildings look bleak, abandoned, the melancholy almost palpable. It’s a reflection of what the artist calls his “curiosity in utopian projects which have become dystopian.”

For this latest series, Benson doesn’t simply apply paint to canvas. Instead, he “builds” paintings by pouring acrylic paint onto panes of glass. Once the paint is somewhat hardened, he cuts into it with a knife, then peels the cut shapes from the glass, arranging them onto his composition on a large canvas.

Indeed, there’s a tactile, almost industrial feel to the series that’s very much in line with its themes of urban decay and what Benson calls the “special psycho-geography of place and placelessness.” The imposing works reveal new aspects of an infrastructure—physical, psychological, and conceptual, he says—that dominates many American lives.

—Bridget Gleeson

Erik Benson: Stacks” is on view at Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, New York, Sept. 21–Oct. 21, 2016.

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