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Ben Britton: Body first, but not always, then mind, also not always (2016). Acrylic and oil on canvas over panel. 84 x 72 inches. Image courtesy Marcia Wood Gallery.

Review: Benjamin Britton’s “The Incandescent Sub-Present” tackles the complexities of memory

Close your eyes and try to remember the last place you were. Try to remember the particulars of the environment or the people that were around you. It’s difficult, right? Images are fragmented and fuzzy. Other sensations like taste and touch are even more evocative. Benjamin Britton’s paintings in The Incandescent Sub-Present at Marcia Wood’s Midtown location through December 23 look like appealing abstractions from afar, however up close they are complex and ambitious paintings that seem to grapple with such phenomenological concerns.

The Incandescent Sub-Present opens with a large oil painting with a lengthy title: Body first, but not always, then mind, also not always. Saturated colors and bold fluorescents pop from the tenebrous background, and subject matter ranges from naturalistic vignettes to hazy patterns reminiscent of an afterimage burned temporarily on the retina.

In this large and complex painting Britton distorts and abstracts space as a prism refracts light. Triangular forms filled with soft, blurred paint make up the bulk of the image. Linear geometric patterns skirt the edge of the composition and strands of multicolored patterns crisscross one another at diagonals. In the center is a triangular-shaped focal point that’s easy to miss with a cursory glance. It’s a naturalistic vignette, like a tiny window, that shows a covered outdoor structure with people meandering through, possibly the inspiration for the larger painting of which it’s part. Thus patterns appear to be more than patterns; they are festive strands of doilies and speckles of color remembered light and shadow.

Ben Britton: "Constituting a wobbly bounteous present," (2015). Acrylic and oil on canvas over panel. 50 x 47 inches. Image courtesy Marcia Wood Gallery.
Ben Britton: Constituting a wobbly bounteous present, (2015). Acrylic and oil on canvas over panel. 50 x 47 inches. Image courtesy Marcia Wood Gallery.

Paired with Body first, but not always, then mind, also not always is the slightly older Keep it in mind if not on the tongue, 2014, which uses a series of circular, window-like vignettes that include an interior space illuminated by the bright natural light of two tall windows, a pipe projecting from a building, a ceiling, and a swatch of plaid fabric. At the top of painting, two folded-over book pages come into focus, though their words are blurred and indecipherable. The inclusion of the book pages seems telling. Words on pages tell a story that unfolds over time; similarly, Britton seems interested in the way that durational experiences translate into two-dimensional, pictorial form. The blurred text suggests the fuzziness of memory, the imperfection of our ability to recall.  

Sometimes, Britton’s work is more straightforwardly abstract, as is the case with Constituting a wobbly bounteous present, 2015. As with all of Britton’s work for this show, space seems refracted and bent, but there is no naturalistic vignette to offer context. An orb of light at the top of the composition is juxtaposed against a shadowy, architectural grid. In the foreground, smears of colorful paint create a sense of immediacy. The various modes of painting suggest different types of sensation. The hazy images in the foreground seem distant and removed — the remembered image. The swaths of paint in the foreground appear viscous and fresh — a visual metaphor for the tactile and immediate experience.

Britton’s techniques and concerns have precedents in art history. His fluidity of style within a single canvas calls to mind the multifaceted approaches of German artist Gerhard Richter. Both move easily from abstraction to naturalism, and both use a blurred technique that calls notions of style and empiricism into question. Reaching farther back, British postwar figurative painter Francis Bacon dealt with existential concerns made all the more salient by the atrocities of World War II. Yet, neither comparison is perfect: there’s a sense of exuberance to Britton’s work that seems at odds with Richter’s cool, subdued canvases, and conversely perhaps, Britton’s bright, polished paintings lack the hellish viscerality of Bacon.

Ultimately, it seems that Britton utilizes different modes of representation to suggest the relationship of sense, vision, perception, and memory. The underlying message of the exhibition seems to be that sensation — including vision — precedes thought, but to separate the embodied experience from the mind is problematic, too. The mind is part of the body, after all, and memory is even more complex. Like a painting or photograph, a memory is a representation. But it is notoriously unreliable, contingent, and fluctuating, details are inevitably and consistently lost in translation. Britton’s paintings successfully grasp the complexity of such issues, and like any good philosophical text, leave the viewer with more questions than answers.