The thing about the paintings of Benini, the Italian-born artist who helped build Hot Springs’ art scene and now lives in Texas, is that they require you to befriend the circular and the otherwise shaped. That doesn’t come naturally. Shaped canvases fall into that netherworld of beings that straddle form, like tadpoles and toads, caterpillars and butterflies — sculpture and painting. I find them hard to like; circles put edges on images in ways that rectangles, thanks to our Western eye, don’t. Ken Noland turned his square paintings 45 degrees to make them diamonds, and that drove me nuts, because they were no longer about lines and color in space but about line trapped in a shape. But Noland was all about flatness, and Benini is all about dimension and light. Even when he’s working on a flat surface, Benini’s images curve. The circular and shaped canvases make a kind of sense.
So keep all that in mind, or at least some of it, when you go to Greg Thompson Fine Art in Argenta to see the current exhibit, “Benini: The Painter’s Journey.”
The show offers up some atmospheric paintings from his Kaos series of the past several years and some earlier works, like aluminum roses and ribbons from the 1980s and 1990s. Benini lately combines his precise airbrushed trompe l’oeil glow with thick (and highly controlled) splatters around (and standing out from) the edges; think Jules Olitski walking in space. Benini joked at the opening reception for his show last Friday, during the third Friday Argenta ArtWalk, that he’s gotten old so now he drips. He will be 70 this year, his wife and tireless promoter, Lorraine Benini, said, but he has in no way gotten old; his strength shows in the large canvases and careful, intentional application of paint.
Besides creating circular paintings, Benini also dares paint in pink. His sexy 30-inch-by-40-inch (rectangular) “Courting Kaos: Open Pleasure,” for example, is a rosy glow framed by gold and pale pink splatters; the splatters are so thick they run together, obscuring the pink background but not blending themselves. A dominating 73-inch-by-48-inch acrylic, “Face of God: Dodici,” completed just before the exhibit, is also on the Kaos theme — a canvas that seems illuminated in its center, in this case saturated in red, receding from its edges of gold and pink splatters. In “Courting Kaos: Between” Benini offsets a rusty red background that changes from dark to light in a horizontal, rather than central, fashion; here the splattered edges, in black, gold, gray and white, nearly converge, squeezing the background from left and right. The palette’s combination of colorless/deep color is tremendous.
I’m still uncomfortable with the circular paintings, though the spherical images Benini conjures with his touchless-method of manipulating paint is wonderful. But we’re not supposed to be comfortable with art; Benini avoids the decorative, which is fairly hard to do in abstract art.
One of my favorite pieces in this show is from the 1990s: a metallic ribbon that furls about a red star. It’s Benini’s paean to Texas, where he and Lorraine now have a Hill Country sculpture ranch on a hundred-plus acres once owned by LBJ.