Flying mermaids, white horses, stars, stripes and swimming pools – these are some of the motifs you can expect to see in an artwork by Leslie Bender who has a solo show at WAAM (the Woodstock Artists Association Museum) through January 4, 2015. A widely exhibited artist, Bender has shown her work in the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Downtown in New York City, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Canada, and in national and regional museums and galleries in the US, including the Chrysler Museum of Art in Virginia, and the Samuel Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz.
Her subjects range from the overtly political such as 99%, where a boatload of people is marooned on a sea of money, to beach and pool-side scenes, such as Possibility of Swimming, where a Venus-de-Milo figure contemplates a David Hockney-esque pool. Except that, unlike Hockney’s pools, Bender’s might be full of predators. Similarly, in Another Day at the Pool, there is a question posed by the hesitant stance of the female figures as to the safety of the water. Of these paintings, Bender says, “beach and pool become the borderline for the unconscious – the beginning of the great unknown.” Other favorite subjects, and some of her strongest work, are crowd scenes set in circus or carnival-like settings: “The circus is a metaphor for the human panorama.” In these, she has invented her own mythology and one of its heroes is the white horse, a recurring motif. It seems to be a friendly and possibly mystical presence, and a prescient one that offers clues as to which way to turn. The way is often the opposite direction from where the action of the painting is happening.
Even when not mentioned in the titles, there is a carnival atmosphere present in many of the paintings. Bender creates dark psychological narratives that include a critique of life in America under a flag whose benevolence has come to feel uncertain. Her painting, entitled, Election Night Redo, is more like a Halloween parade than a political rally. It is presided over by a great fat bumble-bee float followed by a second floating object that could be a harmless streamer, or a snake full of teeth. Behind this floats “Uncle Sam’s” hat, or is it the Mad Hatter’s? And behind this is the white horse who, within the world of the painting, leaps to the left as the crowd surges to the right. Weaving between these is a streamer that ends in a waving minstrel’s hand. And all contained in fully plausible pictorial space.
The title of Moonshadow, one of a number of smaller pieces in the exhibition, was inspired by the Cat Stevens AKA Yusuf Islam song of the same name. But whereas the Islam song is about optimism, the mood of this painting has that ambiguity that Bender brings to much of her work. The mermaid seems comforting and trustworthy – I mean, who doesn’t trust mermaids? But perhaps this is an illusion. What do we make of this oxymoron – an airborne sea-creature – floating behind, or shadowing, what we might assume is the painting’s protagonist? She looks benign but, then again, we can’t see her face. Also, does being out of her element of water make her unreliable? Perhaps she is a Guardian Angel kind of mermaid or perhaps a Government drone kind of mermaid keeping tabs on the neighborhood – or specifically on you; “Big Brother” in disguise. The wisps of red and white stripes breaking through the “matrix” are worrying as is the nervous expression on the face of our hero in the foreground – armored only with pencils in his hat. Is the pencil stronger than the drone?
Among Bender’s influences and artists she admires are William Turner, RB Kitaj, Julio Larraz, and Marlene Dumas. The parallels in sensibility are there and, with Kitaj and Larraz, a leaning towards a kind of expressive surrealism. And certainly a harking to Kitaj’s brushy use of color; Bender has a delicious sense of color. When I look at Bender’s paintings, I am particularly reminded of the work of Jack Butler Yeats. It is not well known that the poet William Butler (WB) Yeats came from a family of visual artists. His father, John B Yates, abandoned a career in law to become a portrait painter. His sisters, Susan Mary (Lilly), an embroiderer, and Elizabeth (Lolly), an art teacher, were both involved with the William Morris circle in London and later the Celtic Revival back in Ireland. His brother, Jack, was an expressionist painter of renown. Jack B Yeats, like others of his contemporaries such as Edvard Munch, Pierre Bonnard, and Marc Chagall, bypassed the formalism of Modernism, and instead took their cues from Impressionism and Symbolism. Yeats loved to paint crowd scenes such as village fairs and, like Bender, he was drawn to circuses and carnivals. A recurring motif of his, and his most potent image, was also a white horse. Bender said to me that part of her life’s work has been divesting herself of the strictures of her youth. In both Yeats’ and Bender’s mythological worlds, the horse appears to be a symbol of imaginative release, and perhaps of spiritual freedom. Perhaps, the horse is Yeats and Bender too. Perhaps we can also be the horse.
Leslie Bender’s exhibition is hung in the Solo Gallery which is between the Main Gallery and the Towbin Wing on the first floor. WAAM, as per its name, is an artists’ association with a membership and, concurrently with Bender’s show, is the member’s holiday show in the Main Gallery. Beyond the Solo Gallery is the Towbin Wing which is showing work by the French Surrealist painter and former Woodstock resident, Georges Malkine. From the Solo Gallery, on the right, is a stairs which takes one down to the Founder’s Gallery, a series of small rooms that includes a youth exhibition space currently showing work on the theme of climate change by students from Saugerties High School. Further in, in the gallery proper, there is a small works exhibition juried by Paty Lott, director of the Gray Owl Gallery in New Paltz. The wall on the left of this gallery is given to an “Active Member” of the association. This month that artist is Vince Natale who is showing meticulously painted miniature landscapes. All exhibitions run through January 4, 2015.
WAAM gallery hours are: Friday & Saturday 12 noon – 6 pm
Sunday, Monday, & Thursday 12 noon – 5 pm. Closed Tuesdays & Wednesdays.
Closes at 4 pm on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Featured Image: Leslie Bender, Fall of the Empire, 2014. Acrylic & crayon on canvas. 40 x 60 (detail)
Images are courtesy of the artist.
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company—as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication. Claire Lambe’s art work can be seen here: clairelambe.net/