Minimalism with a History: Marcus Coehlo Benjamim
“I don’t do sculpture work, I create objects; rather I don’t create objects, I make things.” Marcus Coehlo Benjamim aggressively rejects theory and categorization, even claiming that his work cannot be labeled as contemporary. Despite this, his creation of meticulously crafted objects works solidly within the tradition of many of the major movements of the 20th century, including Minimalism, Deconstructivism, and Arte Povera, and his obsessively prolific oeuvre of the past forty years has gained him recognition as one of the top Brazilian artists of his generation.
Benjamim’s trajectory since the early 1970s began with humorous, erotic, and often caustic cartoons in bright colors; then, moving into sculpture, he soon began to make works out of recycled everyday material. The earliest of these works were contained in boxes, and Benjamim referred to them as “haiku objects,” referencing their ability to contain a narrative of place and time within an object enriched with memory pulled from its own history, a concept he has definitively rejected in more recent works. Utilizing local objects, often in organized, repetitive compositions, he began to develop his own language of material and form, which grew in scale and technique as his work became more recognized. The work from this time brought in influences and materials from the culture in his homeland in Brazil—a somewhat isolated region known as Minas Gerais, which is a rural mixing pot of indigenous people, Portuguese settlers, and African and Middle Eastern communities, with a rich artistic and literary history and a steadfast and serene regional character that reflects a pointed difference from the very plastic Pop Art prevalent in the rest of Brazil.
In a newer body of work, Benjamim continues a progression born out of a slow movement away from this early, reference-based work, creating singular objects that turn to nothing but themselves, citing the idea that strangeness is “more important than beauty.” These works, which are large-format geometric structures made from soldered zinc streaks and then painted in jewel tones, impart a feeling of space-age minimalism, emphasizing texture, rhythmic surface, and restraint. A few repeated forms are present (the wheel, the plane, the diamond), but each attempts to present itself as internally complete with no reference to the real-world object that it resembles. “What I am doing is a negation, within the object, which has always had a strong connection with literature, text,” says Benjamim. “My pieces no longer have any literary apparatus. No words, nor texts. I want an object to be perceived as an object.” Benjamim’s newest sculptures vibrate with a stark roughness that brings to mind the minimal works of Serra, or Smithson’s land art, as he carves out a poetic balance between material and form.
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