Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Ellipsis: The Art of Benny Profane

Future Relics: Image Object #1: “How to Want What You Have”(Cabinet interior view)
Carpet, painting, poem, rulers, teacups, light bulb, coin, pocket watch, film canisters

Ellipsis: The Art of Benny Profane is an imagined exhibition curated by Donald Brackett.

1. Exhibiting the Living Archive
One day after an especially long and arduous shift in the dream factory, the art critic arrived home to discover his mailbox stuffed with letters from artists, from painters and icon makers to be more exact, each one proposing a highly appealing yet physically impossible exhibition. They had the tone of epistles from an extinct race, and from a long ago time, each one lamenting their personal sentence to The Outpost. Comparisons between Kafka's "In The Penal Colony" would not at all be out of order here, for sure enough, each icon maker does in fact bear a personal tattoo identifying his or her affiliations in the hierarchy of art history: a dream tattooed.

So it came to pass that either in their own media or in a different one unknown to them, they were choosing to express, albeit only metaphysically since most of the concepts could never be realized by the curator, their feelings as exiles from the mainstream of twenty-first-century culture, in that traditional form of lamentation so richly played out in the classical period.

It then became clear that they were all “painters,” of course, because only painters among all icon makers have been awarded a fugitive status rare in aesthetics, and only because of the insistent glare of the present digital domain. Both the notion of the "fugitive status" and also the notion of the archive of collected artists’ musings on "impossible to realize" Utopian visual projects, emerged as a result of ongoing triadic conversations among the art critic, the curator and the artist.

In the shadow of the ghost of history, while pondering these relationships, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps extinction is only an intermission, an interruption, an ellipsis between one stage of our cultural narrative and another. It was at this point that I became accidentally familiar with the seductive faux-archival work of Benny Profane.

I was introduced to his tongue-in-cheek archival artworks by a mutual friend, Hal Incandenza, who insisted that Mr. Profane held the key to the kingdom of the future through his implementation of an emergency strategy designed to preserve the past and conserve the present. Mr. Incandenza can be almost as persuasive as the mysterious kitsch embodiments of Mr. Profane. Since becoming familiar with what he refers to as his “future relics,” he has become for me an enigmatic emblem of the interruption and personification of the ellipsis: the veritable logo of the intermission itself.

The art critic and curator initially suggested a project by artists who occupy a kind of historical hinterland (which is to say painters) and the artist elaborated upon the theme by fabricating a seductive format for absorbing the moisture of their dreams (which is to say the catalogue), the essence of which is to be sent as a kind of performative artwork, or social sculpture, to a public desperately in need of something to look at that does not contain pixels. It thus enters their own archival and library systems as a viral sort of contribution to the public dialogue which it has been designed to generate. Perhaps return to and extend would be better words: the future of the past, so to speak. The social sculpture being a remnant of both Beuys and Fluxus.

The report that follows is not offered as a summation on the curious fate of icons, even less of their potential future, if any, but rather as a replica of their voices calling out from the island of the banished: their voices contain and convey their own projected fantasies of the art exhibition they would most like to see documented, if not ever materialized. Thus the catalogue, unlike the Benny Profane "exhibition" it documents, is the only actual physical evidence of the ruminations of these representatives of concrete reverie.

While waiting for permission to return to the centre stage of the Olympian museum complex, which could take a few years, painters will continue to paint under the digital glare of numerical bulbs in secret meeting places, not unlike the heretical catacombs of olden days. One could almost say that they were “instructions” for paintings and photographs that may or may not be made, with photographs being a relatively youthful but aggressively creative medium toiling in the long poetic shadows of painting. But their suggestion is also their making.

Since, after all, it was photography’s genesis which provoked painting into its current fugitive posture in the outpost, but only after its long golden age as the mask of mirrors worn by a visual genius. Painting: a fugitive from the centre of civilization sent to its peripheries by technology? Perhaps this is the astonishing mutation into photographs, film, video and digital domains which encapsulates the intimate relationship between photographs and paintings in the first place, and historically ever since.

For like those heretical subterranean catacomb chambers, the salesmen of painted reverie conduct a form of alchemy which preserves the present moment in a strange and melancholic manner, and by incorporating nostalgia for the future into all their works through a sort of coded esoteric language, the exoteric and three-dimensional manifestation of which is the physical painting, but the actual "message" of which is a four-dimensional fabula, or story. Thus the mythical exhibition is a living archive.

 Installation view of Ellipsis: The Art of Benny Profane, Toronto 1999.

This present approach allows the art criticism to emerge along with the art concurrently and to a degree collaboratively, which is indeed the whole objective of this project and program at the outset. The dinergy of collaboration is, as always, the actual content in question, whatever the form, which, of course, is why form and content are synonymous in the first place. In other words, the process of making something and the final product are one and the same. In this case, there is also a parallel triadic conversation among writer, art dealer and museum official.

As your documentary reporter on this seminal event, first of all, I am pleased to report that painterly inclinations are still with us, alive and well. As usual, to paraphrase the immortal Mark Twain, rumours of its death were greatly exaggerated. Those rumours seem to recur with clockwork frequency almost every ten years, they have been recurring ever since photography’s invention and rapid rise in popularity circa 1840 in France, and I suppose they always will.

However, in light of the work of art in the age of digital reproduction (pace Benjamin), it is best not to make sweeping statements about the evolution of the aura (especially since it has merely altered its basis rather than disappearing altogether) or the life of painting. Apart from this one: I predict that very soon into the second completed decade of the 21st century, analog paintings on textile, or on anything at all, will soon become the supreme fetish objects of our age. Hence this early-century report on the current state of painters and paintings, icons and objects which maintain their hold on our senses.

Everything else is spiritual kitsch. Indeed, many of the most commonplace items, even utilitarian objects, have already achieved the fetishistic status of artifacts to be preserved in the advent of upcoming catastrophes. And it is in the strangely charming intergalactic tourism centre welcoming visitors from abroad (far, far abroad, either from another galaxy or merely the distant future of our own), that the perspicacious Mr. Profane has culled his own personal museum of dream objects and is asking the following somewhat impertinent question.

Handmade bookbinding case with no opening containing analog items from the 20th century: vinyl recording of A Child’s Christmas in Wales read by the author; a melted doll’s head mold for a toy; a mass market paperback of Aleister Crowleys’s Moonchild; a super 8mm reel of a Tom Ewell film called Finders Keepers.

What if the wrong objects were accidentally preserved subsequent to the annihilation of our varied civilizations? In other words, if by chance, not the highest and mightiest samples of human achievement, but rather the lowest and most camp items of mass-produced fantasy, were salvaged?

The camera, of course, occasioned the farthest-reaching shift in the creation of art in history, making possible both the optical experiments of the Impressionist style, as well as the eventual pre-eminence of our own post-post-war abstraction and current conceptual arts in the non-objective manner. There is now a healthy conceptual form of painting that acknowledges its roots while extending its reach. The digital world is partially responsible for this, since so many painters these days are approximating its pixilated textures, while so many digital artists also seem to be exploring the painterly inclination in their work. An odd irony has begun its reign over us.

What Mr. Profane has done, in spades, is to elevate this irony to an even more enhanced and amplified degree by plunging his tongue deeper into his cheek and preserving for us items which we may or may not even want preserved. What if, for instance, the book which fate allowed to survive some future conflagration was not one by Shakespeare, or the first copy of the Gutenberg Bible from 1454, but rather the first edition of Mickey Spillane’s pulp novel, I, the Jury, from 1947?

The opening line, “The guy was dead as hell,” would by sheer happenstance become as sacrosanct as the line, “In the beginning was the word,” as referenced in the Gutenberg printing. Whole monastic religious orders could be founded in order to interpret and create commentaries on the secret meanings to be revealed in the gospel according to Mickey. The idea fills me with a splendid, if tawdry, sensation of sublime wonderment.

2. Conserving the Archival Gaze
Variations on a Theme: The Imaginary Museum, The Profane Collection.

The primary formats available throughout art history are all being employed in this environmental theatre stage set, since it involves portrait, still life and landscape, as well as being a subtle media conversation among the arts of painting, photography and digital shadows as they playfully shake hands with the more ancient media of sculpture and interior architecture. Most importantly, perhaps, this installation celebrates what is known as the visual aura, which occurs when the images or objects being observed by us seem to return our gaze.

In the end, the whole concept of the aura is that of emotional distance: a sensation so powerful before a work of art that no matter how close up to it we are, that distance remains a vast expanse saturated with the sublime.

As we are all being tantalized deeper into a digital world, one where instant information is communicated in blurred fragments, the importance of visual art that remains true to our physical and psychic environment will become increasingly obvious. For many painters, working at the apparently archaic craft of staining textiles with coloured pigments, and with the digital technology of this young century breathing down their necks, it must sometimes seem like a losing battle. But we have cast our lot with the realm of the haptic.

And it is a battle many of us want them to continue fighting, and to continue exploring the painted magic textile surface as a screen for transmitting thoughts and feelings. Tactile, visceral, demanding and cranky, painting is a form of expression that provides an antidote to the flickering screens and awkward extension cords of our shrinking world. Yet there still might be a happy outcome to the blind date between painting and printed images, between photographs and films, between digital computers and virtual headsets.

20th century devices of unknown origin or function, though to be for communication purposes, shown as they discovered in a secret archaeopsychic dig from 1999.

The Cassandra-like warning of artists such as Benny Profane, however, as exemplified so deftly in this memorial exhibit of his works, one suitably entitled Ellipsis, is that camp and kitsch have just as much of a chance at being preserved as those other specimens of supposedly high culture and grand schemes.

Benny’s captivating exhibition could also have been just as aptly subtitled Letters from the Fugitive Outpost, suggesting a secure zone after the analog world has all but vanished before our eyes. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has said, “What is essential is invisible to the eye and can only be seen with the heart.” The palpable desire of these images, and of their maker, to transcend our everyday assumptions is connected to their purity, simplicity, and near trance-like vitality. Here is an artist who offers a glimpse of a reality behind, beneath, beside, on top of, or hidden within the one we usually witness. His name is Profane.

What if, instead of Raphael, Michelangelo or Leonardo, the zillions of paintings by 1960s kitsch queen Margaret Keane were preserved for posterity? Benny Profane manages to make it his mission to display the marvelous as well as the murky, often side by side in order to accentuate their illicit and incestuous relationship before the altars of good and bad taste.

Such an artist, whose role as a curator of morbid curiosity itself assumes the shape of a new art form altogether, is a witness to a world which can neither be confirmed nor denied, and therefore his works are a gentle gesture toward the inexplicable. This kind of objective-painting, and its odd array of image-objects, the kind that attempt to portray the ineffable or essential, like the poetry it sometimes makes manifest, is simply always a relentless search for the intangible and the inexplicable. The artist and curator thus both want to confirm and affirm their mutual compulsions; they want to share with us what it means to be a human being in the second decade of the 21st century.

Double Draw by Margaret Keane, 1963.

In a sense, the true curatorial subject of this book/exhibition/project is the voracious appetite for the New and the Unknown which often takes the form of an avant-garde, a conceptual means of colonizing the void, but which also takes the shape of many other diverse desires for “newness” and “never-before-ness” in our culture besides that of visual art. Cultural jamais vu.

In the world of visual culture it conjures up that uneasy feeling of encountering objects that feel like art and smell like art, but don’t resemble anything you’ve ever seen before, precisely because they try to show us something we can’t always see. The invisible realm where all contradictions cease to be in opposition. The realm at the very edge of history, a haptic edge: the hometown of the ineffable. Our shared installation of sculptural image-objects is the slow archaeological and archaeopsychic dig into the ruins of the last century. We must cherish all such ruins, and the map of their terrifying territory cautions us to do so, whether they be books, albums, films or fetishes.

Perhaps the art object has always been a dialectical dance of sorts, between the aura and its objective expression, a tango on a four-dimensional stage set, shifting in and out of focus as quickly as artists are capable of engaging in the reverie required to make art in the first place. And in this case study of “perhaps,” the exhibition should have the misty contours of a conscious dream, becoming more and more concrete until almost palpable, until we forget the names of the things we see in front of us. The open-eyed dream. One prevailing attitude will also permeate the project: the awareness that we might be passing through a historical period as significant as the transition from orality to literacy, from the spoken to the written word, and thence from literacy to the digital. Few would argue with the notion that computers and the internet might be as revolutionary as Gutenberg’s printing press. This time it is the transition from the literal to the virtual.

Future Relic: an untitled piece by Konrad Klapheck.

The 19th-century American author Melville ruefully remarked that guidebooks are the least reliable books in all literature, and that nearly all literature, in one sense, is made up of guidebooks. In a similar sense, this exhibition is also a guidebook of sorts, especially since there may in fact be no physical manifestation of it apart from its document: it is a guidebook to a place whose exact parameters can never be fully verified. But only if there is a future. Yet what it lacks in reliability, this blueprint for a location never visualized makes up for in the audacity of its sentimental journey through the tattered remnants of another almost-vanished 19th-century phenomena, that of the Sublime. In the future, even a fragment of a celluloid film, or the burnt pages of a pulp novel, will be considered a magical relic of the great Golden Age. Ours.

Ironically, Plato condemned writing because it removed ideas from where they “belonged,” remembered in the mind, shifting them to the outside world. Now, ideas are returning from the physical world back to cyber-space, back to the immaterial realm of the mind, to a digital Plato’s Cave.

But now the shadows on the cave walls are constructed of pixels. By plunging so rapidly forward into technology’s open arms, we have also gone back, perhaps, back to a place as ineffable as the fourth dimension, or to a pure realm of mythical thought. Welcome home.

Welcome to the World of Future Relics.

Unknown Future Relic, from The Benny Profane Collection.

Explanatory Notes:
Anastylosis, from the ancient Greek "again," and "to erect” (as in reconstructing a fallen column or collapsed building), is an archaeological term for an interpretative technique whereby a ruined building or monument is restored using the original architectural elements to the greatest degree and as accurately as possible. It is also sometimes used to refer to a similar technique for restoring broken pottery and other small objects.

The intent of anastylosis is to rebuild, from as much of the original materials is left after usually thousands of years of abuse, important historical architectural monuments which have fallen into ruin. This is done by placing components back into their original positions, as interpreted by specialists in the field. Where standing buildings are at risk of collapse, the method may entail the preparation of drawings and measurements, piece-by-piece disassembly, and careful reassembly, with new materials as required for structural integrity; occasionally this may include new foundations. New construction for the sake of filling in apparent lacunae is not allowed.

Lacuna: a gap or missing part, as in a manuscript text, or a lexical gap in language no longer understood, or a period of silence in music. The Rosetta Stone, a famous Egyptian fragment of marble, was at one time a prime example of a lacuna, since the means of comprehending its three dialects was not known until the time of Napoleon. A primitive anastylosis was also carried out in 1836 at the Acropolis in Athens where the Temple of Athena was re-erected from remaining parts. Currently anastylosis is also being applied to the Parthenon. Other earlier examples of anastylosis were undertaken at the Borobudur shrine in Java and Ankor Wat in Cambodia, rescuing both from the encroachment of jungle.

One of the principal conceptual conceits of this Profane art project, both its book/catalogue documenting the pieces and the theoretical exhibition on which the book is based, is that we are conducting an anastylosis exercise not to an ancient monument from the past but to the modernist industrial culture of the 20th century.

The premise is to imagine items of obscure meaning from the perspective of either our distant descendants in a future drastically different from our present, or from the vantage point of aliens visiting the earth, beings who would have little or no reference points with which to interpret what we have left behind for them to either find or discover.

In order to further facilitate this encounter with future descendants or alien visitors, the artist and curator are pleased to present a useful app they have developed for the purposes of developing procedures for a well-timed ending. This handy-dandy pocket-sized device is highly recommended as a means for conducting ourselves accordingly and managing to choreograph an orderly apocalypse.

Because here at Kitschen Synch Incorporated, we cater to your dreams.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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