"Sonnets of an Andean Gesture"
M Contemporary Gallery, Sydney, Australia
Landscape, gesturing towards abstraction
Landscape is at the core of María José Benvenuto’s paintings, however the particularities of this terrain have undergone a radical transformation over the past 12 months. Benvenuto is Chilean, and in late 2018 swapped her home city of Santiago de Chile, situated in a valley surrounded by mountain ranges, for the scrubby bushland and oceanic horizons of Sydney’s Northern Beaches. For an artist whose practice had, up until that point, been informed by the imposing peaks which looked down on her previous home, it was the endless vistas of Sydney’s landscape which struck her. Where previously Benvenuto’s works had alluded to the contrast between commanding natural landmarks and the small humans living in their shadows, Benvenuto now found herself looking out, and out, and out – at the landscape through her studio window in Manly comprised of layers and layers of foliage through foreground, middle-ground and background.
Her paintings have evolved to reflect this changed perspective. While a spontaneous approach to materiality driven by gesture is still central to the way Benvenuto works, the large inky stains and abrupt coloured slices of her previous bodies of work have been replaced with seemingly endless drizzles of painted swirls. Starting with a fine line in the background, Benvenuto gradually builds up the layers of her paintings, concluding with a thicker foreground. The resulting composition owes something to the artist’s view of the landscape without reflecting it directly, an abstracted interpretation of looking out through those layers of bushland foliage.
Benvenuto’s paintings take shape on the floor, with the artist moving around them, allowing bodily gesture to guide the work’s development. Each painting is completed in one studio session, a full and spontaneous expression of physicality that is preceded and followed by a period of consideration and contemplation. Thick charcoal is sometimes used to create an underlying structure for the work, with wide, layered arcs pointing to the artist’s arms sweeping across the canvas. Atop this the acrylic paint is drizzled, building up an image of intersecting points that call to mind the importance of drawing, or ‘taking a line for a walk’, as a fundamental aspect of art practice. One painting in this exhibition lays these gestures bare, curvatures of white whisking back and forth across the black ground, calling to mind plants swaying in the breeze, or constellations of stars tracking across the night sky.
While Benvenuto has worked primarily in black and white for this exhibition, evading a literal interpretation of landscape, the show also includes a pair of metallic monochrome paintings. Their shimmering twin silver and gold surfaces (beneath which lie the ghosts of other gestural paintings) conjure the behaviour of light within the landscape, reflecting, shimmering, bouncing and settling on surfaces, from a panoramic sunset to a tiny dewdrop.
These are paintings containing layers of information, which can be looked at and through. They are simultaneously chaotic and meditative, symbolic of significant personal changes Benvenuto has experienced in recent months. Their dense strata employ abstraction to explore the microcosms and macrocosms of a world view.