Many of us are feeling loss. Peculiar to the experience of loss is the sensation of weight attached to an absence. The mind focuses on what is missing. An object, an experience, a person—all of their details return in a flood of vivid memories. A void is left behind; the void is heavy.
There may not be an antidote for loss, but artist Aviv Benn’s portraits of spectral figures serve as fertile apparatuses for processing the physical and mental transformations that have been felt over the course of the pandemic. In “Immortal Hang-ups,” a solo exhibition curated by Extase owner and director Budgie Birka-White, the compact space of the apartment gallery offers an intoxicating view of Benn’s recent paintings and drawings that were completed over the course of Chicago’s shelter-in-place order.
At once vibrant and abrasive, Benn’s forty-four drawings patched closely together over the main gallery wall—like a page out of a nineteenth-century pattern book—indicate a relationship between proximity and distance. Each sheet of paper contains a ghoulish figure strung up or contorted in a state of paralysis. These figures never touch. The edge of the page or the sliver of negative space deny the promise of intimacy. Only sneers of teeth or leers of eyes direct a perspectival affinity between these otherwise isolated forms. These apparitions bare no resolute anatomy, but rather emerge as a series of undulating shells through which the viewer might channel their own inner experience. In constant competition with the horror vacui of Benn’s highly textured ground of acrylic, ink and oil pastel, these figures not only struggle to relate to each other but also fail to fully form themselves. The dance of figure and ground is recognizable in Benn’s unhesitating draftsmanship: in the sleight of a thumb she carves the figure out of an intricate web of ornaments and symbols. She reveals her process through a series of decisive removals of material.
Specific works further gesture to effacement. In “Untitled (Coming Through)” woven lines cut through a figure with extended limbs—the body presses up against the interlocking bands while the overall pattern of latticework veils the composition. Other works such as “Untitled (Cross Me)” and “Untitled (Strike Out)” more succinctly describe the poetry of interruption in a series of sharp horizontal lines cutting across the page. “Untitled (Drowning)” depicts the most conspicuous dissolution, in which the figure deliquesces into an abstract mesh of colored smears. In disrupting the wholeness of the body, Benn conjures absences. It is here that the viewer might insert themselves and find respite in the lyricism of her frenzied forms.
The figure as a motif becomes its own kind of pattern. As a recurrent anonymous identity, they are easy to fill with the overwhelming uncertainty that preoccupies us. Without closure, Benn’s ghostly silhouettes invite us to sit with what might have been or could have been. These figures are our hang-ups—they sharply describe the attempt to preserve connection when it all but threatens to fade away. (Alexandra Drexelius)
“Immortal Hang-Ups” is on view at Extase, 2523 West Chicago, through August 30.