Writer_Karen A. d’Arcangelo
This exclusive and original art exhibition takes place in Somerset House from the 4th October to the 9th of December from 10.00 to 18.00 and the admission is free.
You may have heard or been to Somerset House, the outstanding white building on the Strand, next to Temple tube station. However, have you heard about the Deadhouse, an ensemble of volts and chambers that contain 17th century gravestones, or the Coal-houses that were used to heat the whole palace, which are situated just below the main courtyard?
This is the location where the exhibition takes place – an underground setting with small alleys and white marble bricks which recall a 17th century London scene. The exhibition space also been used as the setting for films such as Sherlock Holmes and The Duchess.
It is the first time that this location has ever been used for an art exhibition; the artist purposely chose it because of its light-silence which recalls the main theme of his work. Benney’s aim is to let the audience discover his work while exploring this mysterious and intriguing venue.
Paul Benney was born originally in London, lived and worked in New York and is now back in the UK. He introduced himself to me simply as “Paul” (it took me a few seconds to realise that Paul was actually the artist!) He was surprised and happy to know that a Goldsmiths student was there to write a review about his exhibition; the first question that I asked was the reason of the “night” theme for his pieces. The answer was simpler then I thought. He explained that one of the main reasons is that he would prefer to get all the business work done during the day and paint during the night when everything around him is calm and quiet.
Benney is inspired by great artists such as Velázquez, Rembrandt, Goya and Turner, and uses a variety of techniques in his paintings like oil on resin, wood, metal and feathers.
The exhibition is a route and every visitor must explore the chambers to discover the paintings. The mysterious path engages the cryptic subjects of the paintings which all recall the night theme. The “night” as such isn’t necessarily represented in every painting, but instead the paintings explore what happens during the nigh: what can be seen, what can be felt and what can be envisaged. For this reason, most of the subjects that are representations of ghosts, burning moors, death, criminals or sunrise.
The first painting is “Burning Moors” a landscape in which two rows of fire create an intensely smoky sky and a figure of a man stands in the middle distance. While the impressive scenery strikes the viewer, trapping them in the scene, it also recalls the landscapes of Turner. Paul confirmed to me the influence of Turner on his paintings, revealing, “I was walking in the Yorkshire countryside when I saw these burning moors in the distance and I thought if Turner had seen this he would have loved to paint it, so I did it for him”.
He also explained to me the inspiration behind his innovative representations of the apostles. Their portraits have an extremely modern look – almost frightening. “I found these pictures in a street market in New York of criminals that were about to be executed. I chose to use them as models for the apostles because of their look in the eyes. There is something in their gaze that I couldn’t really figure out, but I could tell that they knew exactly what was going to happen to them, and the only other person that knows exactly what is about to happen in his life is the thoroughly religious.” There are several portraits of the apostles throughout the exhibition, but having known the meaning and inspiration behind them made the experience even more interesting.
Another recurrent theme was “levitation”, one of the painting was called “Levitation, Sometimes I Dream Of You.” A man is floating in the air whilst a hurricane is forming within his stomach; this seemed to me a brilliant representation of the physical feeling one experiences when missing someone.
I also had a chance to flick through the catalogue and read the explanation of another ‘levitation’ painting, which shows a man falling backwards in the air surrounded by a red fire landscape. It refers to a time when the artist was climbing a mountain on a horse with friends, when he found himself suddenly hanging on to the horse’s rains, whilst completely suspended in air on the cliff of the mountain. Before reading the story behind this painting we could interpret it in various ways, but sometimes art can be seen as essentially concerning the artist’s feelings and how he or she wishes to narrate them.
Having had the opportunity to speak with Paul Benney and listen to his insights into the paintings, I found the exhibition even more interesting. I can recommend that everyone go to experience this outstanding contemporary art exhibition in such an exclusive location – an opportunity which doesn’t come round every day!