Frank Benson’s Extrusions is an installation of six sculptures and four photographs. Each pair of richly colored images includes a portrait of a seated figure and a detail of an architectural façade. The human form has been a prominent subject of his past work, such as Human Statue (Jessie) (2011), a life-sized sculpture of a woman in marble and bronze. His Figure Study (Amy) and Figure Study (Chad), classically posed but inescapably contemporary given their clothing and hairstyles, suggest studies for forthcoming work. On the other hand, the two photos of dramatic, vibrant architecture—San Antonio Central Library (West wall) and San Antonio Central Library (East wall)—resemble abstract paintings in which the complex geometry of three-dimensional structures is reduced into flattened planes of color and shading. Next to the captivatingly vibrant large-scale chromogenic images, undulating sculptural objects atop six light brown plinths are elegant and quiet. Made of brown and black clay, the sculptures hug the generous berth of their wide pedestals, looking like land masses emerging suddenly from the flat, hard earth of a miniature desert.
Although each of Benson’s Extrusions (I-VI) is fired, the sculptural compositions retain a fluidity found in wet clay. Using an extruder—a manual press that transforms a chunk of raw earth into a long, smooth strip—he folded, curled, and tangled clay to create distinctive ribbon-like forms. And, while he has selected only six conformations for display, the edited presentation nonetheless suggests the limitless array of twists and turns that are possible by way of this method.
A distinct rhythm exists in the folded contours of each ribbon. In a single strip of clay, what begins as an even and flat course suddenly folds over itself and takes a sharp, vertical turn before spiraling into a corkscrew, only to bend again as it falls back against the surface of the plinth. Another convoluted ribbon finishes by wrapping around itself to overtake its own tail. On one plinth, two ribbons lie prostrate over one another as if in utter exhaustion. In half of the sculptures, the ribbon is paired with a rigid black rod. Although these beams are also made of extruded clay, they appear to be constructed of an entirely different material. Together, the pairs appear like strips of leather draped over steel rods. In context with the photographs, these couplings of ribbon-like and angled forms echo the softness of the human form next to the hard line of shadow found in architectural detail. Whether they writhe with tension or slink along weakly, the apparent fluidity of the ribbons is a deliberate illusion. Each has been fired in a commercial kiln, rendering the once malleable clay hard, brittle and motionless.
Benson has toyed with shifting the properties of materials before. His Chocolate Fountain (2008) is a tiered tower cast in steel and painted with glossy, brown acrylic to make the solid metal edifice appear as if hot, melted cocoa is cascading over every ledge. In a series of works called MDF (2008), he bent and curved the corners of medium-density fiberboard, so that the normally thick and heavy construction material looked as weightless as a single sheet of paper drifting to the ground. Drawing on the same principles for his installation at Artpace, his clay sculptures are not as they appear: motion is frozen, flexibility is a well-crafted illusion, and objects become mere images of the things they appear to represent.
Uniting his interests in sculpture and image-making is Benson’s use of simple industrial technology and rudimentary materials to generate works that resonate equally with everyday objects and the history of 20th century art. His work challenges the boundary between artistic production and commercial manufacturing. The artist’s hand is evident in the idiosyncratic twisting of each abstract and unrepeatable arrangement, but the uniform width of the bands and their smooth surfaces undermine spontaneity and other handcrafted qualities often evident in clay works. Neither machine-made products nor handcrafted sculptural compositions, Benson’s Extrusions are something in between.
At Artpace, his process is more direct and the results are infinitely more immediate than those of his most recent sculptural endeavors. Like Marcel Duchamp, who dropped pieces of string on a canvas and cut out the silhouettes that the fallen threads had arbitrarily defined, Benson allows gravity and chance to help determine the folded configuration of each clay ribbon. In doing so, his sculptures strike an unlikely balance between the planned and the spontaneous, the industrial and the personal.