BULL’S-EYE: New Photographs by Martin Benjamin at the Mandeville Gallery, Review
Review of BULL’S-EYE: New Photographs by Martin Benjamin, Mandeville Gallery, Union College
It is fitting that an exhibit entitled BULL’S-EYE: New Photographs by Martin Benjamin would be held at Mandeville Gallery, located on the campus of Union College in Schenectady. The juxtaposition of that college when compared to its surrounding community is the perfect precursor to actually viewing the works, which, like the campus on which they are displayed, deal to a great extent with such juxtaposition.
The concomitance dealt with in Benjamin’s work, however, is not always as stark as that between Union College and the city of Schenectady. As a lifelong Schenectadian, I have always been struck by the contrast between the urban poor community surrounding the campus and the colonial countryside maintained within it. There is a visual barrier between the community and the campus, a gateway which appears less as a means of maintaining its sanctuary than as a portal to another time and, certainly, another tax bracket.
This all works to Benjamin’s advantage, because many of the people who took the time to view his work, having had to walk across some of the beautiful campus to do so, would have thought of this contrast too. Then, to walk into Mandeville Gallery, located within Nott Memorial Building, a moderately sized circular space three stories high, with its stained glass windows and ten-foot painted portrait of Eliphalet Nott, fourth president of Union, standing imposing in the main entryway, is to view a work of art in itself.
On the second floor is the gallery, where Benjamin’s photographs have been displayed in a staggered yet effective manner all around the circle. The photographs are set up on walls maybe seven feet tall, nine or ten feet across, and this has the effect of ensuring each visitor must take his or her time, that the pictures do not, as they often do in galleries, blend into one another. Each piece stands on its own, and Benjamin benefits greatly from this.
The work is striking, and engages in the kinds of juxtapositions and verisimilitudes one has come to expect in an era during which the lines dividing haves from have-nots is growing ever more defined. Rich vs. Poor. Old vs. Young. The capturing of pain and joy, of concern and vacuity. These are not new concepts and were they the only issues tackled here. Benjamin would have risked seeping into that thick yet always appealing miasma of sophomoric pandering, tempting for its mass appeal (who’s going to argue that rich people are out of touch, or that the culture is changing perhaps for the worse?). Benjamin transcends these ideas though, and seems to be telling us to both calm down and speak up.
By capturing pain in Roma and Caravaggio, in which a woman can be seen in seething emotional agony directly before a painting by Caravaggio (I think it was Medusa 1598-99), the viewer can see that the images resemble one another uncannily. Then, in Lucca and Capri, Italy, Benjamin juxtaposes two pictures, one of a classical Italian statue of a beautiful woman, the other, a photo in the style of modern commercial modeling. There are other examples, too, of people young and old, standing next to one another or juxtaposed by Benjamin himself, sharing the same expressions as though they were tactile things to be shared by the simple act of giving. I always hesitate to state what an author’s intent is, but for me it was a call to anyone who might view the work to calm down. That, yes, the world is changing and young people right now might not be up for whatever is coming their way, but that those words were once said about the generation before, and the one before that all the way back to when God must have wondered if he had not properly prepared Adam and Eve for temptation.
There are obvious statements as well, such as those found in the Vietnam (the exhibit is basically split up into sections for Italy, Vietnam, and local photos) section of Benjamin’s work. For instance, Village Near Hanoi & Underground Command Bunker Beneath Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 2007. In this work, there is a picture of a young Vietnamese girl in bed working two cell phones at once. The picture below this is one of a desk in a room located in an underground command bunker. On the desk are three old abandoned rotary phones, relics of a bygone era. One need only turn the corner to view Hanoi, Vietnam, 2007 to see another stark juxtaposition. A destitute man lies, dirt caked upon his skin, clothes torn to rags, on the side of a road. Below him is the picture of a Coca-Cola advertisement picturing a hip young Vietnamese man, clean, hair gelled in a way which defies gravity and convention, enjoying a delicious Coke. The message is clearer here. Which is the real Vietnam? Then, by extension, Which is the real America? Finally, Which is the real you?
The pictures are not entirely of foreign lands in this exhibit, however, with many featuring the Capital Region, especially Albany and Schenectady. One of the more striking examples was a black and white photograph of a building in Albany. On this building, which looks to be abandoned and near collapse, are the words “We dont [sic] have to know what But [sic] we know somethings [sic] wrong!!!”
There are more lighthearted pictures as well, such as one of Benjamin’s first camera, a Kodak Bull’s-Eye, and other indications of the artist’s past, but I found myself skipping by these in order to move on to another example of Benjamin’s superb eye for instances of the generation gap being foreshortened while the socioeconomic ones opens to the status of a chasm. It was a message which, while not necessarily new in visual art, music, or literature, is one that resonates, and his take did add a level to the dialogue.
All in all, BULL’S-EYE was a successful show and one well worth the lack of admission. Benjamin is not only an accomplished and talented photographer, but performs his duties in a way which simultaneously documents life as it is and yet, in its own small, hinting way, calls for revolution, if not of a government, of a state of mind.
The exhibit runs through May 22. For more information call 518-388-6729.
–Matthew Holden is an Assistant Editor for The Free George.
The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our new City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.
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