On Painting in the American West
A life-long realist and figurative painter, Christopher Benson has also been painting abstract and expressionistic pieces "on the side" since his student days in the early 1980s. Though he has occasionally exhibited this work, it has only recently become the focus of a now 40-year exhibition career spanning both coasts of the US and the spine of the country from the desert southwest to the great plains of the Dakotas. After a retrospective museum exhibition of his realist work in 2017, Benson began to bring his more non-objective alter ego to the forefront, while searching for ways to blend these two long, formerly-parallel lines of his interest together.
In an essay published last fall in the book ART IN THE MAKING, Essays by Artists About What They Do, Benson writes the following about this more abstracted and expressionistic strain of his work:
"I have always had a "painterly" approach, with brush and knife marks clearly evident in the surfaces of my pictures. It's challenging though to find a physical abstraction which doesn't just recycle the big gestures of the New York School, or call up the ubiquitous handmade vocabularies of Bay Area painters like Park and Diebenkorn. I love that lineage, and it is clearly where my work comes from, but I have also worked to build a vocabulary of my own that looks in a different direction while yet acknowledging those roots.
American painting has long been stuck in a project of self-mythologizing, and the desert southwest, where I live, has been an especially myth-making place for American painters. One immediately thinks of Georgia O'Keeffe or Agnes Martin as the iconic voices of the great and mystical desert. The reality of the southwest however is that it is a far less epic, much funnier, more broken and deeply, stubbornly eccentric place than such lofty visions might suggest.
The artist who drew me to New Mexico when I first drove west in a Chevy van at age twenty-eight, was George Herriman, the cartoonist of the quirky, irreverent Crazy Kat comic strips of the 1930s. Herriman set his oddball characters in an imaginary expanse of tilting prairies, studded with small, alien trees and with implausibly anthropomorphic rock formations jutting into black or cobalt skies, dotted with merengues and zeppelins of cumulous cloud. For all its implied hugeness, Herriman's desert was also a miniature, vulnerable and profoundly human place.
As we devour and destroy the natural world at every turn, and become ever more entrenched into inflexibly self-righteous cantons of ideology, I see the vulnerability, eccentricity and humor of Herriman's art as a guidepost for my own American painting. You can have the great lions of modernism; I'll take the lovelorn Kat and the angry, brick-throwing mouse, whose fragile, magical landscape was always poised at the very end of the American Dream."
— Christopher Benson, 2023