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Liz Wylie

Douglas Bentham
Gordon Snelgrove Gallery, Saskatoon, March 7 - 18 [1983]

Vanguard, Vol. 12 #5/6, Summer 1983.
[ 839 words ]


In 1980 Doug Bentham was given a twelve-year retrospective exhibition by the Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina. The opportunity to study the direction of his work had a sobering effect on the artist. He realized that the process of welding together pieces of scrap steel had become too pat and easy. But to change his syntax, he decided, he would first have to change his vocabulary. He turned to thin sheet steel with which he could form planes in space, delineating edge and enclosing volume. Rather than composing with pre-existing forms, then, he began to create his own forms from the new raw material.

This exhibition was the first public showing of a group of his new works that he began in 1980. It was comprised of six pieces, all of which were made in the Emma Lake workshop in the summer of 1982. Each of the sculptures seems to be exploring similar issues; they take on the feeling of being notes or even melodies within a general theme. For example, they all give the impression of being approximately of the same height, though some do have elements that jut upwards in space. The ratio of height to width and depth in the pieces is close — most would fit easily into an imaginary cube, as none spreads out in any one direction.

Some constant threads and similarities with his 1970s work exist. His preoccupation with the enclosure of space, for instance, explored with box-like forms in the Enclosure series from the early 1970s, and then with frame-like 'drawn' elements in his later Open series now takes a new twist. In these recent works, the sheets of steel are cut and gracefully bent so that they turn in on themselves in concentric layers. The resultant self-contained feeling forces the viewer to approach the work, the work does not brashly reach out to make a quick impression on the viewer, as did the earlier pieces. The shyness of his new sculpture, however, is not the result of its being at all boring or safe. The only sense of this might be in the strong feeling of a pronounced back and front which most of the six sculptures give. This aspect could become a rut for Bentham. In many ways, actually, the work is weird, risky and quirky, while at the same time being unabashedly prettier than his 1970s sculptures. At times this prettiness is lyrical, at times whimsical, and even ungainly. The narrow cutout welder's visor metaphor in Barrier and the hilarious staggering ribbon form in Manitou are two examples. Also, the grinding marks which appear over the surfaces of all the works make one think of little random scribbles of drawing, another whimsical touch, which also acts to define the surfaces of the steel planes.

The main change, in formal terms, from the artist's earlier mode is that the pieces now contain a much greater number of elements and are denser in appearance. In a certain sense, Bentham has risked a great deal in making his change in medium and approach. The work no longer has the 'good look' of his earlier sculptures, which so easily fit into a Smith-Caro-Steiner stream. A viewer, instead, is thrown back onto his / her experience of these new works and to his / her own subjective aesthetic 'take' in order to estimate their quality. Still, Bentham could be condemned (by those who wished) as being an empty modernist as his work has only subliminal referential meaning. Carol Phillips felt driven to address this issue in her 1980 Getting To Now catalogue for the retrospective. How does one defend an art whose sole purpose seems to be 'only to convey information about itself?' But, Bentham's work seems to be valid in its own right, despite its perhaps questionable context in society. Perhaps such an investigation is unfair to begin with. Should an art, after all, be judged by its parameters, or by what it does within them?

Bentham himself has changed his ideas about what he would like his work to be. In 1978 he said: 'You aren't looking to do something great, you're just constantly trying to improve yourself. In my case, there is a lot of self-criticism. I don't have any visions. I want to make sculptures that breathe for me, that engage the viewer in an intimate, instinctual way, not merely for their formal correctness.' Five years later, the artist seems to have secured a 'vision' for his art. Now he wants to eventually create sculpture that will no longer correspond with people's preconceptions about what sculpture is. The work will look so new and strange that it will not actually be initially recognized as even being sculpture.

Doug Bentham is striving to continually make his work more personal. He has proven himself capable of challenge and change.


Vanguard, Vol. 12 #5/6, Summer 1983.

Text: © Liz Wylie. All rights reserved.

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