Erik Benson Fuses Architecture and Nature to Critique Urban Sprawl

With Untitled: (Study for new brutal modernists) (2014), a building made up of dark, vacuous windows and blocks of blue, yellow, and rose paint emerges from behind a web of tree branches. A second, near-identical building is wedged just behind the first; both structures seem Bauhaus-like and are markedly devoid of any people. With this painting, Benson seems particularly concerned with flattening space so that the forms in each plane—the tree, high-rise one, high-rise two—make up one composite image that conveys neither progress nor total destruction.

In another painting, Playground (Ailanthus Altissima) (2013), a colorful hodgepodge of plastic fencing and playground equipment obscure the base of a building, already slightly obscured by a haze of grey amorphous forms. Benson’s process of pouring paint between glass panes, then cutting shapes with an X-Acto knife and combining the separate pieces into a collage, creates new ideas of space out of pre-existing ones. This process relates directly to the themes explored in his work, particularly the layers of decay found in urban architecture.

A series of watercolor works draw attention to urban detritus,—a tree-shaped air freshener, a McDonald’s burger wrapper, a Chinese takeout menu—speaking to a particular cultural moment of mass production. With Coupons (2014), numbers like 1.99, 2.99, and 3.79 emerge from a coupon page that is almost entirely saturated in water stains. These prices clue the viewer in to what specific point in time the work aims to capture—our contemporary moment of mass consumption. It is notable that these works are less gripping when viewed in isolation, commanding more weight as a mini-series that serves as a counterpoint to his paintings.

Perhaps what makes Benson’s style the most memorable is his ability to collapse the foreground and background of his works into one plane—in so doing, he entwines natural environments with constructed ones, hinting at a future hybridized urbanization.

Anna Furman

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