Contributed by Riad Miah / What’s a ghostly-looking ship doing in the city? Probably the same thing as the ethereal-looking figures passing through a similarly urban environment. In Leigh Behnke’s solo show “Time Travelers and Ghost Ships” at the School of Visual Arts’ Flatiron Project Space, enticing and mysterious paintings of such phenomena stimulate contemplation of the future as a manifestation of how we treat the present. The placement of historical artifacts, some photographed from The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and positioned in contemporary settings, suggests the artist’s intent. The jolting oddness of the ships in context is reminiscent of the Monolith as it appears in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Further demonstrating a fluid sense of time with cinematic flair, Time Traveler – Winter depicts a female figure in a formal evening gown, looking at once back from the present and beyond it. The piece recalls Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #48.
Behnke begins with images from her photographic library of various objects from museums and other places to which she has traveled. She then combines multiple shots using digital software that shrinks or enlarges them so that they appear proportional to the overall picture. Finally, Behnke prints the collaged image onto a painting substrate and paints the entire printed image with oils, the digital image thus functioning as an underpainting. A master colorist as well as a fine figurative painter, Behnke conjures romantic, seductive light in the vein of Fragonard, Boucher, and Chardin, among others. Her ships are rendered to reflect times of day as well as seasons. In Ghost Ship VIII – Spring, crabapple trees bloom to the right of the vessel, which is surrounded by bright foliage. The effect is to convincingly fix an improbable object from the past in a forward-looking moment.
Over the last 20-plus years, Behnke has consistently employed multiple images to make up a whole. As traced in a slide show presented at the exhibition, she would often stack individual images incorporating similar vantage points and deftly use light to transform the independent images into a coherent impression. The most compelling feature of the new body of work is its capacity to prompt a fresh, synthetic interpretation of visual elements while leaving the collaging process in evidence. In its eerie melding of content, the imagery resembles memory. While Behnke’s work does not address specific social issues or reflect a defined political stance, it firmly, critically, and handsomely suggests how we might consider our place in the world.
“Leigh Behnke: Time Travelers and Ghost Ships,” SVA Flatiron Project Space, 133/141 West 21st Street, New York, NY. Through September 15, 2023. Reception on September 12, 2023, 6:00 – 8:00 PM.
About the Author: Artist and educator Riad Miah was born in Trinidad and Tobago and lives and works in New York City. He has exhibited with Lesley Heller Workspace, Rooster Gallery, and Sperone Westwater Gallery. His 2022 solo show was at Equity Gallery in New York.