Unseen Terrain

Dr. Amy Mechowski, Head of the Learning Academy at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

“Unseen Terrain” represents a series of new work by Ella Benami, which also includes paintings from other series, such as “Stems and Strains” (2014-2015), “Temperature” (2011-2013) and “Dreamscapes” (2009-2010). Assembled for her first exhibition in the UK, these works collectively convey a vision of her oeuvre, artistic practice, and development of a visual language deeply rooted in abstraction. Abstraction, as both a concept and form of expression, exists between material reality and the visionary. And while human experience is inextricable from the world we inhabit, it is the possibility of discovering and engaging with a metaphysical experience of that world which has so often driven the creation of such new visual vocabularies to express the space where they collide and fuse with one another. With this exhibition, Benami firmly situates herself amongst those artists who have come to be regarded as “inventors of new worlds,” which exist between representation and abstraction, dedicated to opening up an alternate space in which consciousness lives and can be articulated.

Though her work has been aligned with that of women abstract expressionist painters and its interpretation as a manifestation of women’s inherently intuitive psychology, essentialist definitions such as this are thwarted by the equal affinities Benami’s work has with male artists’ engagement with psychic dimensions and spatial temporalities in painting. Therefore, while her work might engage in a dialogue with Helen Frankenthaler’s natural forms and lyrical gestures, at the same time it can be actively associated with Matthew Ritchie’s explorations of a universe of quantum physics.

Through a layering of paint and fluidity of gesture, she constructs and speaks within a visual nexus – at once transparent and opaque, where line and form dissolve and are remade – driven by what she describes as a “need to understand, know and apprehend the immaterial.” A morphology emerges from her work as organic forms and structures are brought to life on the surface of the canvas. To experience them is, at one moment, to look close, as if observing cells and plants through a microscope, and in the next, to view from a distance, as if surveying a landscape or peering at the nebula of the sky through a telescope. Benami conceives of and explores “mental landscapes” as spaces in which perception and psychology are located just as geophysical landscapes are, to address the reality, yet relative obscurity, of the elusive world of the psyche.

The space she conjures is a liminal one – where boundaries between polarities diffuse and are blurred – female and male, life and death, near and far, interior and exterior, material and ethereal, physical and psychic. This is a space without boundaries, indefinable even as it exists between definitions, and one in which social norms are suspended and modified, where the dominant ideology may be questioned at its most vulnerable point – beyond its confines or outside the realm of order.  Rather than social norms, it is the limits of physical and psychological reality which Benami’s works seem to suspend and modify, introducing us to a visual world which defies a rational search for ‘order’ and dares to engage with the potential ‘chaos’ of the abstract, even abstruse, transcendental realm.

Born and raised in Israel, and having lived in India as well as the United States, Benami regards herself as inhabiting a similarly liminal realm. Both Eastern concepts of the metaphysical and Western traditions of Abstraction have had an influence on her approach to exploring questions such as ‘where does psychic life exist?’ and ‘how is it made visible?’ through her work.

The liminal not only delineates a space between polarities, but also an alternative to the marginal, at the centre, rather than occupying the periphery. Subjectivity, our internal reality, has often been theorised as being articulated in a liminal space, between established styles and forms to create an ‘other.’ In literary terms, this is the space in which experimental and collaborative writing, fragments and epigrammes, take shape and make meaning. In Benami’s paintings, amorphous forms both occupy and resist the limits of the canvas, as layers of paint bleed into and fuse with one another, resulting in a sense of movement, flow, and continuum that defies polarities such as opaque and transparent, solid and liquid, real and imagined. In this regard, if the ‘present’ can be considered as a space between the ‘past’ and ‘future’, the titles of works such as Back Then and Coming Forward speak to a sense of temporality that is visually manifest in the ethereal qualities of the surface of the works themselves.

Benami’s use of mnemonics to title her works contributes to an engagement with them as images and objects which exist between the material world, visual language and the psyche. Dating back to the Classical world, mnemonics is a system of memory devices allowing the mind to retain and retrieve information that involves making associations with signs, pictures or places. Each of the mnemonic codes she uses (such as DMO, YOS) represent a particular association that she has with each individual work, or is based on a word in Hebrew – which she identifies as still the most natural language through which she speaks. Neither a signifying word nor an acronym, these mnemonic titles are conjured within a sphere that exists between her own psychic world and the physical world in which the materiality of her paintings reside. Her titles speak to the concept, now well-established, that memoria is not simply confined to storing information and making it accessible, but must be understood as a creative process in and of itself, within which that information is formed, interpreted, and conveyed.

Just as memory exists both spatially and temporally, between perception of the world and the consciousness which processes the value and meaning of that perception over time, so Benami’s works exist in an “Unseen Terrain”, that emerges within both the artist’s and viewers’ desire to grasp the ever present material with the immaterial –  perceptible and yet elusive.


Landscapes of Unseen Reality

Suresh Jayaram 1Shanthi Road Art Center Gallery 2014     

The freedom of abstraction ushered new ways of perception. The work of women abstract expressionist painters in the art world was new and refreshing. The history of these paintings demonstrate an interesting use of color, space, movement and emotion.

From looking at the works of Ella BenAmi, We are able to better understand the ways in which these women perceived the world and were inherently intuitive. So abstract expressionism was an effort to reclaim a freedom and move away from the burden of representation.

Most abstract artists are in the quest for a new reality, a spiritual and physical liberation from the burden of representation. A romance with the unpredictable. The passion for the unknown infinite reality, The pigment was rolled and manipulated with ease and spontaneity. The gesture of the hand did not leave traces but reveled sedimentation with colors of the sea.

Ella’s works stems from her subconscious. It is a liquid space that is primordial. The ambiguous nature of the work has multiple interpretations of abstraction or a reality that is not visible to the naked eye .The canvas explodes into new kaleidoscopic visions of infinite possibilities of abstract permutations and combinations of casein based pigment in a play of light and color overlapping to represent visions of infinite space, structured with graphic shafts of light caught between the polarities of stillness and movement. Transcendental invocations of minimal geometry and spatial dimensions. 

Ella layers pigment and overlaps it with her gestures. Her expressionistic strokes inscribe calligraphic, hieroglyph notations on the surface. This is superimposed by a dominant color that reveals fragments of light.

The artist travels from the terrestrial to an inward journey or a meditative mantra of self Absorption. A private getaway from the humdrum of the urban chaos, into silence and solitude and monologues with colors, gestures and surface. As these accomplished practitioners transcend and renew themselves by mutating and surviving in the divergent space, negotiating the metaphysical and indulging in aesthetic innovations.


On Earth and Air

Bill Lowe Gallery 2011

Ella Benami’s vaporous and sensual abstractions are descended from mid-twentieth century Abstract Expressionism. They propel this tradition into a new iteration that insinuates a post-historic consciousness. Her works might be viewed as cosmic and primordial blueprints of instinct, emotion and material form. They are informed by her spiritual beliefs and her world view. 

Benami was raised in Israel in a secular Jewish tradition. She later studied Asian philosophy, lived in India for period of time and in the United States for a period of ten years. She studied art at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. The many and varied strains of her life have collated to create a cosmopolitan artist who is cross cultural and non-traditional/non-religious. 

Through her art she attempts to capture the essence of the spiritual dimension of our existence. She states that “Psychic/spiritual life has to occur somewhere. There has to be an arena where all of this drama actually takes place. The limitations of third dimensional perspective prevent us from perceiving, understanding and observing our own spiritual lives.” In her paintings, Ella Benami confronts the challenge of documenting or portraying these internal environments. 

In her simulation of these internal environments, Benami assumes/becomes a lens which implies an existence or presence within these arenas, as though she was transported through the mechanisms of her mind or through dematerialization to these higher dimensions and is seeing them from within. There is a call in these paintings to go back and search for lost kingdoms of ours.