Benjamin Carlson

by Jonathan Griffin

Park View, Los Angeles


What more obvious subject could there be for a painting that deconstructs the mechanics of representation than a still life in front of a window? The window, as a picture within a picture, traditionally stands as a proxy for the painting – the painting’s self-image, as it were – while the still life has for centuries been a convenient armature for everything from allegories of mortality to investigations into optical perception.

Benjamin Carlson’s five still lives in front of windows, at Park View, swerve between obviousness and subtle surprise. My sense is that Carlson is interested equally in the values of both. These are paintings of the mainstream, the middle ground, the everyday. Any picture that includes vector clip art of apples alongside the Apple Inc. logo is aiming for a fairly wide margin of popular recognition.

That particular work, however, is one of the more complex in the exhibition. On a square canvas, Carlson has convened an assortment of clip art apples and found photographs – a metal table, a basket, a concrete wall, more apples – which he has imprinted via inkjet transfers and, in places, over-painted with oil, acrylic and Flashe. Behind the table is, to the right, a window framing an utterly flat wallpaper pattern of painted leaves. To the left is what looks, at first, like a mirror, except it does not reflect the table in front of it. Rather, it is a painting of the same table, differently arranged in some respects, and with another still life painting hanging behind.

That Apple logo, centre-left, is, for me, an apple too far. Despite its winking cleverness it presses an undeniable point: like overlapping windows or icons on a desktop, no part of this painting impinges on another part. Nothing touches. By contrast, another painting (they are all untitled, all 2016) has the opposite effect, in that it is hard to tell where one thing ends and another begins. This one is nearly monochrome, in black oil, acrylic and charcoal on a washy blue and grey ground. Again, there is a table in front of a window that might actually be a painting; on the table, beside wine glasses and a bottle, is a transfer clip art strawberry next to another strawberry drawn in charcoal. Into one wine glass, Carlson has inserted a ­(presumably found) image of a tiny mermaid, arms folded and reclining in the charcoal drink.

Disjunction and alienation are so much a part of our daily aesthetic experience – especially in digital media – that to reproduce that effect as a painting is less striking than creating a cohesive vision despite its internal dissociation. The standout work in the exhibition is also monochrome, depicting a loosely drawn vase of flowers and takeout coffee cup beside two clip-art apples on a table top. Through the windowpanes, trees are lightly sketched in charcoal and paint, but the graphic stars in the pale sky above are black. From the darkness under the table, two pairs of white crescents peek upwards, as if hiding from this topsy-turvy world. They needn’t be afraid. It comes to seem quite normal after a while.


First published: Art Review, September 2016