GOING WITH THE FLOW Phantom (1971)
When you talk about the art of Lynda Benglis, there's just no avoiding the giant dildo photo. When the New York artist came to Rhode Island College to paint an installation in 1970, Life magazine compared her poured paintings and lumpy drip sculptures to Jackson Pollock. It was a rookie of the year compliment. And in an era charged with the overturning of traditional gender roles, it could also prompt thoughts of the Freudian analogies between brushes and poured paint and cocks and semen and what a ballsy declaration it was for a woman to go pour-to-pour with the big boys.
Before long, Benglis was toying with the whole macho man/dainty damsel thing by advertising her shows with pinup images of her naked feminist self. A postcard for a May 1974 gallery show depicted her from behind, wearing just books and blue jeans pulled down to her ankles. That November, she placed an ad in Artforum magazine showing herself naked and oiled up, with a giant, veiny dildo clutched between her legs. Five Artforum editors published a dissent in the next month's edition, calling the ad a "qualitative leap" in "vulgarity" and a "shabby mockery" of the movement for women's liberation. Other feminists wrote in praising Benglis's macho-parodying, self-parodying move. Guys wrote in praising Benglis's body. Everybody noticed. And the ad is now an icon in the history books.
PROCESS-DRIVEN The Graces (2003-5)
Three and a half decades later, that giant dildo ad is enshrined in a vitrine in her retrospective exhibit at the RISD Museum (224 Benefit Street, Providence, through January 9). It's still blazingly pornographic. Aesthetically, it straddles advertising, photography, performance art, smut, Bugs Bunny mind-warping prank, and political poster, which makes it hard to clearly register its revolutionary badass I'm-no-object sexy seriousness.
The through line of Benglis's art is her repeated flouting of (avant-garde) taste. Born in 1941, she began making poured pieces around the same time that Richard Serra was hurling molten lead at the bases of walls and exhibiting the resulting chance casts. In Blatt (1969), she puddles orange, red, and green paint right on the floor. In Untitled (VW) (1970), she heaps hot red, orange, pink and black polyurethane foam into a bubbly pile in the corner of a room. The foam resembles lava slowly oozing under the weight of gravity. The next development was Phantom (1971), a group of four polyurethane foam sculptures that look like frozen waterfalls spilling out from the gallery wall. And they glow green when the room is dark.
Serra's sculptures were serious and gray and growled that their massiveness might crush you. Benglis's have a slower, geological motion, given a neon glow by her exuberant adoption of synthetic materials and gaudy pop colors.
Next Benglis made knots of rolled canvas covered with plaster, paint, and glitter ('71-'74); video experiments, including Female Sensibility ('73), which shows two women kissing and licking each other's faces to a random soundtrack of chitchat, phone calls, and radio broadcasts; fans, pleated metal ribbon sculptures, and abstracted body forms (late '70s and '80s); and wounded, gutted ceramics ('90s). The past decade is represented by columns of vases and saucers seemingly made from chunky purple ice. In fact, they're polyurethane casts of structures she built up with synthetic spray foam.