During my recent visit to Los Angeles I saw an exhibition of paintings by Amy Bennett at the Richard Heller Gallery. The paintings are all landscapes of rolling hillsides with clusters of houses and an occasional small village.
Ms. Bennett has an interesting creative process, a process that gives her paintings a detached dreamlike quality or the quality of a distant memory.
The process starts when Bennett creates a three-dimensional model, tableau or diorama. These are sometimes small cardboard versions of buildings with complete interiors and removable exterior walls. She populates her little building interiors with tiny human figures made for model railroad environments.
Bennett says the buildings and settings she constructs are usually places where people have a personal experience while in the company of others. That means environments like a doctor’s office, a church or a theater.
For other pieces – and paintings of these are what I saw in L.A. – Bennett makes larger landscapes carved from styrofoam blocks that then have buildings, trees and bridges added to them. These landscapes and villages feature miniature houses and cars that are slightly larger than Monopoly game pieces.
In both her miniature buildings and her scale model landscapes, the blend of public and personal space is important to Bennett. Her forms capture a generic quality that public spaces inevitably have while also evoking a sense of personal connection and importance.
Mostly the streets and yards in these miniature towns are empty. When people are present the scenes depict routine days in the life of small town doctors, merchants, church goers and villagers. Nothing extraordinary happening, just the coming and going of everyday life.
Once the miniature buildings or landscapes are constructed Bennett lights them in a way that suggests a specific time of day.
After building and lighting the scenes Bennett creates paintings and prints based on them (see above and below). Her detailed miniature tableaus and dioramas serve the same function as still-life arrangements of bottles, flowers and fruits that other artists use for their subject matter.
The compositions of Bennett’s paintings do not reveal the edges of her miniature landscapes or how a model building rests in the real environment. Like the selective framing of a video camera shooting a movie or television episode on a stage set, all the obvious artifice at the edges is cropped out and we are left with a highly selected scene that has its own internal references.
On first glance the final paintings look like straightforward documentation. But… Everywhere you look in the painting things are ideal and perfect, very staged, very serene, timeless.
The houses are ideal rectilinear forms with smooth edges and smooth wall planes. The trees are perfect versions of trees with consistently dense, deep green boughs of leaves. Roads have no potholes or irregular edges. The streams and rivers flow ever so smoothly through the idyllic countryside.
All of these perfect elements are viewed from slightly above like a stylized visual memory or a dream. They are similar to views you would get if you were hovering over the scene in a helicopter or if you were having an of “out-of-body” experience. Very omnipresent…somewhat like a third-person point of view in literary fiction.
The process of inventing a landscape in her imagination and then building a simplified version of it leads Bennett to stylize the forms, textures, and color relationships. Creating a painting based on that hand crafted world leads to even more stylization. And viewing the scene from an elevated vantage point adds more simplification/abstraction to the mix. By the time the paintings have been completed, all of the aspects of form – shape, color, texture, composition, etc. – have been modified to the point where the finished paintings are diagrams as much as documentation.
Here is a short video showing more of Amy Bennett’s working process. If you are viewing this in email click here to see the video.
Learn more about Amy Bennett here.