Saturday, 13 October 2012


The Deadhouse

Levitation 2005 Oil on wood (c) Paul Benney

Beneath Somerset House’s famous neo-classical courtyard - used for film sets, fashion shows and as a glamorous skating venue in the winter – lies a web of little-known underground passageways called the DeadhouseYou could hardly ask for a better setting for these strange paintings. It’s an unsettling space, dingy, crooked, with headstones hung on the walls grabbing your attention with tragic true stories. The corridor is punctuated by rows of alcoves each about the size of a large pantry.  Part of the site is said to be under the River Thames itself.

 Paul Benney is now showing the first exhibition of paintings ever to be held there. He writes ‘I don’t set out to make eerie or unsettling work. It does eventually come across as that, I think, as a coincidence, as a result of me finding imagery that makes sense to me’.

 Benney is influenced by the Symbolists who believed that, because you can’t confront absolute truths head on, the artist must ‘tell it slant’. That way, art can embody something of our spiritual quest. Rachel Campbell Johnston of the Times writes that Benney ‘shows us our lives as they balance on that fragile boundary between the perfectly ordinary and the profoundly otherworldly. He seeks to capture that mystery which redeems us from the mundane’. 

In Levitation it's as if we're looking through a window at a figure furled up as a foetus, suspended in some magical space. It reminds me of Salvador Dali’s Crucifixtion. In both paintings the subject is oblivious of us, both figures, caught in eye-catching postures, are suspended between alternative universes.
Christ of St John of the Cross 1951 S.Dali

Benney is quoted as saying he has ‘a holy horror of slick paintings. His influences range from 20th century Russian cinema to Rembrandt and Goya. ‘Generally, of all those artists I am drawn to the subterranean subject matter. That includes Goya’s Black Paintings’, which include Saturn devouring his son and two ghoulish old men eating soup. I find some of Benney’s work equally disturbing; Pissing Death, a skeleton standing ankle deep in a Romantic mist-swathed lake, pissing into the water; and Black Varla, a head which bursts into flames, not fire descending from heaven as in the Pentecost story but seeming to escape from the man himself as it his very forehead has caught fire.
While I appreciate Benney’s sense of adventure and his dislike of the mundane, I think he has a harder task than the Symbolists had when they burst in on the world to shock and to shake. We can now have daily access to terrible visual and word images.

What I appreciate most are Benney's skill in creating an atmosphere - and the beautiful way he paints. Look at the upper half of Levitation. Who would not want to plunge into the jades and turquoises and silver which are so absolutely present before us? Waves or clouds, plunging or rising, they welcome us.  Or perhaps they greet us with perfect calm and stillness and silence - and we're back with the Symbolists' spiritual quest?

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