Ordinary people, ordinary places, ordinary events until you look a bit closer. When it comes to people, no matter how ‘ordinary’ the individual, (the place or context), there is always a hidden narrative. This sounds sinister. Sometimes it is. Sometimes not. We judge what we see regardless of what lies beneath, even when we don’t mean to – it’s our nature. And our nature is no excuse but when confronted with ourselves, our inadequacies, we should feel uncomfortable; itchy in our own skin. Artist Amy Bennett asks us to feel just that – slightly tortured and a little bit…stuck, sometimes sick. Have a look:
The above paintings are some of the works in an exhibition entitled Nuclear Family on show at the Miles McEnery Gallery in New York.
What do you think? Real but sort of not – in a Pleasantville meets Stepford Wives/Edward Scissorhands kind of way? Suburbia, with the sharp point of a knife slicing its way through?
And the titles are important.
In “Groom” a grey man with a grey car is given a haircut in his garden by a woman in blue, who matches her house. The man goes to work, the woman stays at home. But is he a groom? Is he being groomed? Groomed for what…work? Is this an image of 1950’s suburban bliss or will the woman go back into her house and null the boredom by drinking herself into oblivion before having sex with the plumber?
And what about the strange dummy-like figures wafting about in the water in “Floating Lessons” and “Gawker” – completely exposed, completely vulnerable? Vulnerable, like the girl in “Fashion Show”, posing for her family (we assume) in an orange bikini; weird and chilling and what the?
“Delivery” is one of Bennett’s darker images; the caustic lights of the theatre exposing the birth of a baby. The scene is without joy. There are wires, doctors and restraints, and in spite of the vast space perforating the delivery room, there is a cloying sense of claustrophobia directly linked to the incarceration of the baby’s mother, who’s restrained by hostile black straps that scream asylum. In such a highly controlled environment there is an ironic sense of helplessness, a loss of control, on the part of the mother – who is alone. She is on one side of the sheet and everyone else stands on the other side, even her child (and where is dad?). Is this a metaphor for motherhood? For parenting?
The prevailing sense of isolation in “Delivery” is echoed in “New Mother” and “Animals” but when these artworks are juxtaposed with the quiet chaos of “In The Throes” and “Problem Child”, and the shrewd humour of “Pinup”, the complex reality of family and parenting is revealed.
The theme is continued in “Sunday Morning”, in which traditional togetherness is replaced with fragmented self-involvement. There’s something suggestive about the pose of the child on the chair – is he (or she?) bored, vying for attention? Why aren’t the adults obliging? Or is this just the routine of a modern family…and why is there something disconcertingly sad about the whole scene? “Rubber Gloves” possesses the same strange sense of disquiet – what is the woman in the picture doing? Has she slipped or is she just doing her morning stretches? And are those casts or bandages on her legs? Whatever the answer, her hunched pose denotes an attitude of resignation; like she is a victim, incapacitated in some way.
In “Drills”, it’s the title that dishes the dirt. The image of children huddled at the back of the classroom next to an upturned table, for what might be story time, is less perplexing when we realise the children are likely practicing drills in preparation for a terrorist attack. Disturbing. Again, there is an atmosphere of vulnerability, created by the large unoccupied space at the forefront of the classroom, the children cloistered at the back.
“Crash” is another painting given meaning by its title. Are we talking car crash, collision, disaster? In the painting, an artificially lit home glows hypnotically against the backdrop of a night sky. Next to the house is what looks like a couple on a bed situated in an open double garage (uh – yes?), next to a car; a sliver of light crossing their bodies, subtly directing our view. Could the couple simply need some good ol’ colloquial shut eye – to ‘crash’ on their garage bed (still weird)? At this stage in the exhibition, the viewer has likely wised up to Bennett’s modus operandi and minds will take the darker route. An otherwise peculiar suburban tableau is thus rendered ominous by its title, which forces viewers into a place of contemplating some or other impending doom. It could be a broken relationship – a clash of ideas, personalities and expectations – or perhaps it’s a metaphysical collision? A battle of forces – the inner versus the outer, the private versus the public.
Private versus public. Jane Austen – right? Conjured by Amy Bennett in 2019. How can one ignore the likeness. Like Bennett, the English novelist was interested in real life; she wrote of ordinary things; love – the good, the bad, the sad and (yes) the ugly, familial relationships – how parents related to their children, and societal relationships – friendship, neighbourly relations and most importantly, discerning the intention of those who mean well and those who do not. Austen’s characters were bound by rules of social conduct defined by 19th century society; rules that masked an inner thought life of repressed dreams and desires. In her novels, Jane Austen explores the consequences of contravening these rules – exposing inner sensibilities to the constraints of public life.
Today, we may not live under the severity of etiquette that Austen’s characters did but we are servants of social media and general social expectation; buying into a narrative of perfectionism that conceptualises a public image that is likely very different to the private day-to-day reality. Bennett is acutely aware of the social disparity that governs the lives of her subjects. The aestheticism of her artwork renders her paintings remote, and so we look on with a critical eye, and yet the oddity draws us in and as we question our gaze turns inward. The tension between the artifice of the environment and that which lurks beneath (exposing a very real albeit subtle emotional context) jolts our conscience out of apathy, forcing us into a place of introspection.
It’s the surreal quality of Bennett’s paintings, inflicted upon very real, very mundane subject matter, that makes them so interesting. It’s almost as if they are renditions of those model towns you see in housing development offices. Ha. An accurate supposition. Bennett describes her process:
“For each painting I created a 3D model to serve as a still life. Painting from models helps me to process and extract bits of my experience in order to make what is imagined more concrete. The model becomes a stage on which I develop narratives, and offers me complete control over lighting, composition, and vantage point to achieve my desired dramatic effect. The clumsy inadequacies of miniatures with their slight shifts of scale and reduced detail help me to convey a sense of artifice and distance. I try to paint the scenes in a way that feels like a believable but alternate, fabricated world. My paintings are representations of a miniaturized world playing at reality.”
The fictitious tone inherent in all of Bennett’s art is more obvious in “Witch” and “Our Town” – in the former, a broom, a cat and a woman dressed as a witch are placed sedately against the backdrop of a gray/pink kitchen, and in the latter we look in from a distance at a carnival tent, filled with a crowd watching a show of 12 seated people; under the spotlight our attention is on the ‘performers’ but in the shadows around the tent are three armed guards. There is something dystopian about this picture – something creepy and deeply unsettling, as if the story is yet to unfold.
The mystery is part of the joy of Amy Bennett’s Nuclear Family collection – it forces us to pause, consider, wonder…
…and imagine where we might stand in all of this life stuff.
Reference: British Library