Michelle Benoit’s work seems to to evoke a kind of reverent awe and, given the size of the pieces (most are smaller than 12×12” unless displayed in series) and their deceptive simplicity, they mesmerize specifically because of how Benoit employs the materials she chooses. Benoit crafts her work primarily with Lucite and maple, creating forms that evoke abstract color-field painting in a way that leave the viewer gazing at them with reverent awe. In many ways, her work conjures a simultaneously eerie and luminescent exploration of the physicality of something we know cannot possibly be physical: color.
This does not mean that Benoit’s work simply consist of color or is “about” color but, rather, she infuses the Lucite with a color in a way that both recalls and negates the presence of the hand against the stark contrast of the grain and opacity of maple. The result is a body of work that is familiar to us in general but rendered alien in this context by virtue of being sunken “beneath” what I would be tempted to call a painting. Sculpture is not quite right either, though it may get close, but again, what we’re looking at when we’re looking at Benoit’s work isn’t a block made of “red” because we know through the properties of physics and chemistry that pigment of colors is a pigment attains their identity by absorbing certain wavelengths of light and reflecting others. On a rational level, we all know that no matter how hard we try, it is impossible to materialize (at least in common practical terms) color in such a way that you’re looking at physical color––you’re always, instead, looking at something that reacts in a certain way to light in the visible light spectrum between laidback Infrared frequencies on one hand and cancer-causing Ultraviolet on the other, with more extreme things like x-rays lying farther out.
The problem (and it’s a great problem) with Benoit’s work is that color seems to have been caught or trapped (as in amber) in the Lucite of Benoit’s work in such a way that we can catch a glimpse, or even take a long look, at the immanence of something we know doesn’t have any physical form; and while you might not be thinking of all this consciously while you look, it’s in your mind somewhere in some form, probably, and is a large part of why you keep looking. Benoit’s materials and their shape (they extend quite a distance from the wall, especially for objects of relatively small size) lend themselves to two ways of thinking of the work that also cause an immensely pleasurable version of what’s ordinarily an unpleasant sensation of cognitive dissonance in that the works both seem to be containers for color, yet their solidity insists that they are color.
This might seem like splitting hairs, but it’s the key to understanding how we think of painting and sculpture (and divide the two) in an era following the widespread entry of industrial and manufacturing processes first flaunted by Warhol and later put into practice by ideal-form-seeking minimalists like Judd or early LeWitt. The machine that drives this ambiguity is the Lucite itself: translucent but not transparent, it seems to simultaneously capture whatever hue it reflects and also be made from that hue, as if painting could come into existence and emphasize the physicality of paint without ever being painted or involving paint at all. When we look at paintings we usually look at surfaces, but the Lucite allows us some entry––but not complete entry––into the painting itself.
What makes Benoit’s choice of Lucite so brilliant is precisely this quality, as well as the fact that the Lucite can be controlled to either offer something approaching a hard edge between two colors, as in French and Mackenzie’s divided rose hues, or something more fluid and diffuse, as in the bottom edge of Over Pink, where the green and pink both seem hesitant about how to share the space where the two colors meet.
This might seem like a rather abstract exploration of what seem like rationalism-resistant blocks of immanent color, but that’s the other brilliance of Benoit’s work: more so than if it were just a minimal painting, paint on surface, Benoit’s work both invites comparisons to the carefully considered color patterns of 1960s sculptural minimalism while at the same time it makes that work, as good as it is, seem stiff and sometimes even cold compared to the warmth of diffuse color in Benoit’s work. Benoit clearly follows Judd in particular in employing sometimes narrow ranges of hues often in the service of serial presentation, the works themselves owe a much greater debt to the earlier US generation’s fascination in the “glow” (for lack of a better word) of color that you would find in Frankenthaler or Rotkho, or even in the late works of Reinhardt. Those two camps seem like they would oppose each other, but just like Benoit’s work seems to both be and contain color, it’s simultaneously extremely fluid and completely precise (when Benoit wants to be, as in the Blue Over work from the Weights and Measures series), another contradiction that keeps us looking. Another way of putting this, if you happen to be an electronic music fan, is to think of the expansive rigidity of 1980s and 1990s minimal techno like Basic Channel not posed against but somehow integrated with later “dance music” that pulls rigid beats and familiar pitches into taffy, like the work of Aphex Twin.
I don’t mean to suggest, though, that Benoit’s work is “just” a brilliant manipulation of the physicality of color or over 20th century art history, though, because, returning again finally to the Lucite, Benoit pushes back not decades but centuries into the tradition of western painting (if we want to call it that for a moment) is that the Lucite allows Benoit to do what painters working with pigment have been trying to do since artists began working with pigment, which is to appear to capture light. Benoit’s works not only capture light, they emphasize light’s complexity and fluidity, because the deeper you look into (rather than at) a work by Benoit the less light there seems to be, and when the blocks of Lucite are back by maple, the maple serves as a kind of velvet curtain in front of a grand proscenium theatre stage or even a kind of “night” that limits your ability to see light. And note here simply that I’ve been talking about light as if it is something we can see, when just like color it is not, so, while Benoit’s works are often beautiful and vibrant and expansive as aesthetic objects on their own, the virtuosity of Benoit’s work is that it allows us a fleeting glimpse into what it would be like to see color itself, and to see light not just illuminate but coexist with color. A little ironically, by using materials that recall fetish-finish minimalism, Benoit doesn’t offer us a pure surface that allows us to see ourselves in, but rather a depth in which we can see everything that is not ourselves, and that’s exactly, to possibly oversimplify it, what keeps us looking.