This year's representative Ithaca Festival image comes with a split personality. Reproducing an oil painting of a local landscape, the graphic is split into two long horizontal colored bars, broken by a much narrower white strip running left to right across the center (There are white margins along the top, bottom and sides as well). I like to think of them as being like consecutive panels in a comic—
separate scenes that coalesce into one narrative. Near the bottom of the top panel, lettered white in striking, modernistic type: "I T H A C A F E S T I V A L." Close to the top of the bottom one, in matching lettering: " 3 0th A N N I V E R S A R Y". The event's anniversary dates—
2007 and 1977—
appear in the top and bottom right-hand corners respectively. It is an intricate and clever image, teasing the viewer by deviating from its apparent symmetry.
The panorama above is an unassuming but beautifully painted scene. In the foreground is a wavering row of treetops, arcing down in the middle to reveal more of the background. The trees are rendered impressionistically but have an unexpectedly three-dimensional feel. Their highlights are small patches of yellow-green and yellow-ochre, with shadows in cooler dark greens and rusty reddish browns. Behind the trees, far away (judging from the use of atmospheric perspective) is a hillside sketched out in pale, bluish greens and grays. Further still is narrow blue-gray strip showing the opposite side of Cayuga Lake. Near the top edge is a strip of sky painted with subtler brushstrokes. The scene is broadly naturalistic in style with the exception of several mysterious arc segments—
red, blue and violet—
piercing the foreground trees. Both literally and in style, they point toward the bottom panel.
There are things are markedly different, plunging into abstraction. The arcs continue, multiplying. Loosely suggesting a pond or river the tree line appears there upside down. The sky is reflected as well; disconcertingly, it is more vivid below than above. Also strange is that the same opaque sky-blue also appears in a series of broken horizontal stripes. The rest of the panel is painted with energetic, slashing, cascading brushstrokes—
much of it quite thinly. Lines of paint scratched away form highlights. Bubbles appear in the paint surface. Other dominant colors: violet, purple, blue, red, and greens both warm and cool. There is no shoreline, the water appears as a flat, unbroken plane, not unlike in Monet's late painting.
Symmetry (bilateral, to be technical) is not perfect or straightforward. In the lower panel, there is no trace of the background behind the trees—
this much is realistic. More strangely, while the tree line is mirrored with some accuracy, it pushed further down than one would expect. Which is to say that central dividing axis should be pushed down as well; which is to say that the white bar in the middle is above where the shoreline should be. The arcs only fit the overall symmetry in one place (and again, not perfectly): a half-circle crossing both panels, coming out of the middle of the right edge. The brushwork in the two panels is different too, as I mentioned. And one last detail: The bottom panel is not quite as wide as the top, leaving a wider white margin along the bottom half of the right edge (And although I realize that last paragraph was dry reading, it helps explain what makes the piece so compelling).
The image calls to mind any number of dualities or oppositions: traditional art versus modernism, observation vs. improvisation, the outer world vs. the inner, control vs impulse and so on. And, although these divisions can seem a little too simplistic, a little too pat, it's hard to deny the intelligence and skill with which they are represented here.
The painting reproduced is the work of William Benson
, a longtime presence on the local art scene. Based upon this years Festival theme of "Reflection," it also is representative of his recent efforts to fuse realism with abstraction. As he writes in an artist's statement:
I grew up drawing . . . everything - people, figures, landscapes, monsters and flowers. My sensibilities in painting have been defined by a continuing respect and admiration for those before me who have wielded the great representational brush. Believing also that there is as much power and emotion in abstraction I am attempting to reconcile the two in my work, whether in landscapes or with the figure or still life.
Like no small number of local artists, Benson first discovered Ithaca as a Cornell student. He arrived here as a freshman in 1968 and graduated four years later with the standard Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. He found the town and its surroundings to be "one of the most beautiful places on the planet." But he found his schooling to be less than fully satisfactory. With a hint of disdain, he tells me that his "education was more concerned with contemporary art theory than the practical methods of applying paint to canvas." Benson is by most appearances a practical man—
which isn't to say he doesn't have some loftier goals.
As with many young aspiring artists, he went off to New York City upon leaving school. There, he found work doing silkscreen prints for well-known artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Romare Bearden. But soon he found such jobs tiring, and so he returned to Ithaca after a couple years. He quickly got married and started both a family and an artistic career.
Motivated by the difficulty of making a living as an artist, Benson's career has taken on many aspects. Not all of them neatly fit stereotypes of the "fine" artist. He has long been one of the Ithaca area's most established and respected portraitists, working in both drawing and oil paint. Since the late 80s, he has made a concerted effort to expand on this line of work, eventually gaining representation at the three largest "portrait houses" in the country: Portraits Inc., Portraits South, and Portrait Brokers (These are located in New York City, Raleigh, and Birmingham respectively). These large commercial organizations provide their numerous members with a variety of commissions—
local or national, humble people and famous. While many artists might look down upon such a big-business-like working method, Benson finds it rewarding. And, although portraiture itself may not have the cache today that it did in the past, the artist sees it as a potential route to greatness and renown.
He also has done assorted design and illustration work, including covers for a number of local publications - among them the paper you are reading now. He has painted murals for two prominent local restaurants: Madeline's and ZaZa's Cucina. And, he has taught, including a stint at the Community School of Music and Arts (I once took a figure-drawing class with him there myself, almost a decade ago). Among his more distinguished local students was Barbara Mink, whose fluid abstract oils have some affinity with Benson's less realist images.
Although Benson always has done more personal work alongside the money-makers, his recent landscape-abstractions are an important departure. He describes himself as being most deeply rooted in representational art - in masters "from Vermeer to Van Gogh." And although he says he has come to have more appreciation for contemporary and abstract art, his newfound irrealism has another source as well. In his own words:
One aspect of traditional art [I] found intriguing were paintings in progress—where one could see the underlying ground and then some of the sketched in composition and then some parts that were complete and finished and I liked that imagery - sort of like the aspect of time during the painting process. As I was working on my own, using the same process I began seeing parts of the process itself as an abstract expression of where I wanted the painting to go and began trying to incorporate those loose movements into the finished painting. This is key - the abstract movements in my work are painted FIRST.
abstraction as improvisation or sketch —
is a key to understanding these paintings. And, the combination of highly finished areas with rougher ones hasn't always been limited to actually incomplete paintings. One precedent that springs to mind is the nineteenth-century American portraitist John Singer Sargent, who often combined tightly rendered faces with sketchy-looking backdrops.
The tradition of selecting an annual Ithaca Festival artist goes back to 1994. Past artists (most of whom I'm unfortunately not familiar with despite growing up in Ithaca during the nineties): David Finn, Ellie Jones, Tim Merrick, Peter Kahn, Mary Shelley, Jane Dennis, Susan Bull Riley, Carol Terrizzi, Dede Hatch, Laurel Guy, George Rhoads, and Alice Muhlback. Benson says he has admiration for all these men and women and that he is "standing on the shoulders of giants." He has respect as well for many other local artists, among them: Vicky Romanoff, Parker Brody Burroughs, Carlton Monzano and Camile Doucet.
Benson's own involvement with the Festival goes back to the inaugural event in 1977. As he tells me, local artists were at the time allowed to submit designs for T-shirts - among the printed entries were ones by him and his (then) young son. This year, his image appears not only on a tee, but on the Festival Button (the sales of both will help support the Festival). A limited edition print is available as well.
His long-standing respect for the celebration is clear:
It seems the Ithaca Festival has grown in stature with every passing year and it really is the dedicated long hours and hard work of all those behind the scenes that pulls it off so that this entire town and surrounding villages can have such a fun and celebratory weekend. I am simply honored that I was asked to be the Festival Artist for this year and hope my contribution is helping to keep this fabulous tradtion alive. As part of the Festival, Benson will be showing work at the Clinton House's ArtSpace through the month of June. The exhibit opens on May 30th, with a reception that evening from 6 to 8 pm. In addition, he will be performing at 6 pm on June 3rd with the band GoGone - according to the Festival program "a fusion of original roots, rock, and blues."