The Austin Chronicle

"Ashley Benton + Christopher Lee Gilmer" at Wally Workman Gallery

Art is, we’ll insist, transcendent when its foundation is skill and passion

Reviewed by Wayne Alan Brenner, December 27, 2019, Arts

Some art just looks like art, you know what I mean?

Some art, more to the point, looks like modern art – or like, perhaps it's more accurate to say, contemporary art – what we've been trained via pop culture to perceive as art, as opposed to the works being considered by a passing eye as merely gorgeous illustration (although they might also successfully serve as illustration) or exquisite craft (although a great deal of craft might be involved in their creation).

You know what I'm talking about? You probably do, but I reckon you'll grok in fullness if you walk into the Wally Workman Gallery on West Sixth and see the current show that features works by Ashley Benton and Christopher Lee Gilmer.

The good news – especially for those less-educated toilers who remain relatively unconcerned about appearing to be all down with the whole complex megillah of art history and so won't feel the urge to fake an aesthetic orgasm just because something looks like what people with MFAs might appreciate – is that the work Benton and Gilmer hath wrought is so damned effective at provoking a response (visceral, intellectual) that the show surpasses, even, the power of great design.

Of course, that's supposed to be how it works, right? Design is fine for commercial projects and wayfinding signage and so on ... but art, oh, art is always more, what, sublime 'n' shit? Because it comes from the heart, from the emotions, from deep inside the Unique and Sensitive Soul of a True Artist?

Honey, don't even get me started.

But that is how the situation works in this current case, as it works in all the cases I'd call successful (while acknowledging that it's my own subjective definition of success). And I'll insist that it's because Benton's small and exquisitely warped figurative ceramics and Hilmer's large oil-paint-and-oil-pastel-on-canvas works, any of them, while undeniably originating from the Unique and Sensitive Souls of True Artists, sure, could also successfully serve as illustration. And that a great deal of craft was involved in their creation.

And it's that – once we move beyond the whole art-market investment milieu and its eyeroll-inducing bullshit – that makes art almost as worthwhile to the beholder as it is to the artist: its ability to communicate something of its subject (sometimes even if the communication is only "look how unexpectedly lovely this combination of colors and textures is") and/or the evidence of how many fucks were given toward bringing it into existence. (And please note, if you were previously unaware, that this sort of worthwhile markmaking and object manipulation, this attractive and yet not-always-unchallenging sort of work, is par for the course at the Workman Gallery; it's always a good idea to see what they've got on display.)

Look at Gilmer's Allegory of the Cave with its arrangements of figures in various phases of resolution, the posed human models and those who would view the models (while immersed in virtual reality via current tech methods) depicted together in a burst of blue-shift brilliance against an avalanching impasto of cave-wall beige. While you clock Plato standing over there to one side, deeper in a chamber of the painted cave as he is deeper in the chambers of any philosopher's heart, realize that Hilmer's partly realistic and partly Basquiat-as-coached-by-Sienkiewicz figures make perfect sense for every level of this particular subject – because this is the arena in which the actual objects and their shadows and their diversities of reality interact. And then deduce that his similar style of depiction in other paintings, regardless of what correspondence a title might reveal, makes that much sense at least as far as your eyes are concerned: It's not a depiction you'll yawn over and forget about anytime soon, because it slams into your rods and cones in an extraordinary way.

And Benton's ceramic figures, oh my, the twisted and truncated and bisected little things! Heartbreaking, really, because they're all formed with such recognizable aspects of human anatomy that the bodily disruptions defining emotional warpage and destruction strike with a familiar impact. It was like this after you is a standing figure of polished white with traces of blue glaze, their body sundered by the titular experience, their head rising in two separate pieces from shoulders repaired by the gold-based joining technique called kintsugi. Haven't we all felt fucked-up like that, at one time or another? Benton captures the feelings perfectly, and there are so many of these sad, life-battered figurines – and others of less harrowing, more positive history and future, too – adorning the walls between Hilmer's paintings. Resonating.

Art, right? And design. More and more, I think good art is –

OK, it's like really good design is John Wick, see? That hit man in the movies, played by Keanu Reeves? And John Wick is so skilled at his job that it's fucking scary, there's no finer hit man than him in all the world: He takes on a project and he accomplishes it effectively, expertly killing everybody he's hired to kill. And then somebody (purposefully, cruelly) kills the dog that his dying wife gifted to him, and suddenly the contracts don't matter anymore, the "rules" don't matter anymore; and he's of course still at the top of his deadly game; but this time, as the saying goes, it's personal. And that's when John-Wick-as-really-good-design becomes art.

Oh, never mind my odd yammering, citizen: Go see this show.

“Ashley Benton + Christopher Lee Gilmer”

Wally Workman Gallery, 1202 W. Sixth, 512/472-7428;
Through Jan. 5

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