In his second Robischon Gallery solo presentation, highly-influential California artist James Benning offers “small roads,” a round trip journey from California to Louisiana, utilizing routes not typically highlighted or shown on interstate highway maps. Legendary in the field of experimental filmmaking, Benning has been making innovative films for over four decades which remain outside the tradition of the medium while ingeniously addressing matters of place, the beauty of nature and the difficult truths of the American dream. In small roads, Benning’s on-going contemplative investigation of the relationship between humankind and nature, quietly directs the viewers’ attention towards America’s long-standing dependency on the automobile with a series of fixed shots along forty-seven small roads punctuated by a range of expected and unexpected arrivals appearing periodically throughout the frames. The action of rushing emergency vehicles, cars or rolling trucks along the roads interrupts the pastoral quietude or coastal beauty of time-passing on the road. With lanes separated by yellow road striping and seen from oblique perspectives, the viewer is offered a deeper contemplation that it isn’t simply about the roads themselves or the mobility they represent. Rather, the road leads the viewer toward a seemingly limitless American landscape with their shifting cloudscapes and breeze-shimmering grasses which allows for a stream of consciousness to unfold and an unstructured observation of an ever-changing larger reality unspooling over time.
Known as a “filmmaker’s filmmaker” for his dedication to his chosen medium and with fourteen feature-length films to his credit and many more short films, Benning’s notoriety stemmed, in part, from his expertise in 16mm filmmaking. In 2008, Benning shifted to a DVD format to address the conservation concerns of film. The shift to a digital process has allowed Benning’s polemical understanding of the landscape to expand as he became inspired to manipulate images by merging shots between different filmed sites. Unlike the artist’s earlier films such as Ten Skies shot straight up over time as intermittent voices and sounds of nature are heard below, or RR, where each static shot of passing trains entering and departing the frame relied on the artist changing his technology to match shifting conditions throughout the filming, small roads was created differently from these earlier works.
Considering the filming of the exhibited work, Benning states, “In small roads I’m doing much more manipulation – it took me months to do – and you’re not aware of it. It looks more real than any of the films that I’ve made. I’m trying to make real sense of landscape by using real collages that are highly manipulated, but undetected. So that’s an interesting way that the frame can be torn and multiplied by technical means, and completely collaged together in a way that looks absolutely real, too. The equipment can take you in either direction – to the total abstracting of the image or towards a much closer reality. For instance, if I’m filming in an area where generally there’s thunderstorms that come through every afternoon, but the day I happen to be there it’s sunny, that’s more false than collaging it to look like what it generally is. When I shot those cattle on the side of the road I was hoping for an afternoon rainstorm and it just didn’t happen. The next day I was a hundred miles or so away and there’s the rainstorm. Different landscape completely, but I simply tilted the camera up to eliminate the hills and shot the sky; then I’d just bring that in, crop it and you can fuzz the edge of the image so it just falls in and you don’t even notice it’s a different place. So, in a way it’s manipulation, but in small roads everything I manipulated made it more real to me: I’m trying to reinforce reality.” James Benning’s contribution to both filmmaking and the broader cultural dialogue as a master framer of landscape sets the artist apart as he consciously avoids the need for a traditional plot. It is his highly refined and specific aesthetic language which allows each fully-engaged viewer to “look and listen” and to access for themselves the beauty and complexity of the American landscape.
James Benning has an MFA from the University of Wisconsin along with an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin. Benning’s work has been the subject of film retrospectives at Jeu de Paume, Paris (2009); the Austrian Film Museum, Vienna (2007); Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (2005); Anthology Film Archives, New York (1999); and the Whitney Museum of Art, New York (1986), among others. Past group exhibitions include the Whitney Biennial (2014, 2006, 1987, 1983, 1981, 1979) and documenta (2007), as well as presentations at Kunstmuseum Basel (2013); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2002, 1993, 1986, 1979); Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles (2001); Museum of Modern Art, New York (1996, 1993, 1980); and Artpark, New York (1978). Benning’s most recent film, L. Cohen, was awarded The Cinéma du Reel Grand Prix from the Festival International du Film Documentaire. The artist’s installations, drawings and silkscreens were the subject of a comprehensive solo exhibition organized by the Kunsthaus Graz in 2014, which traveled to the Kunstverein Hamburg in 2015. He has been an educator in film and video at Northwestern, University of Wisconsin, University of Oklahoma, and University of California, San Diego and currently, he is a professor at the California Institute of the Arts. The Austrian Film Museum in Vienna became the recipient of Benning’s entire body of work and is restoring and archiving the artist’s 16mm films while creating DVD versions for more wide-spread viewing opportunities.