by Betty Ann Brown
It's not what you see that is the art; art is the gap. —Marcel Duchamp
Ashlie Benton's evocative paintings deploy a unique vocabulary of visual forms. Horses and hands. Coyotes and crowns. Mysterious geometric symbols, suggestive traces of text, and expressive fragments of human anatomy. At first glance, the poetic combinations might seem confusing. What, for example, do four sets of human eyes have to do with a ladder? And how do these in turn relate to an ancient sculpture, its head broken off, the folds of its toga represented by thin, fragile white lines?
One way to answer such questions--to decode the messages of Benton's dreamlike work--is to consider how art functions. Renowned American critic Arthur C. Danto asserts that one of the key characteristics of fine art is the presence of what he calls the "ellipsis," that is, the deliberate and often metaphorical gap that compels readers/viewers to participate in creating meaning by filling in what is missing. French avant-garde master Marcel Duchamp spoke extensively about the importance of viewers co-creating the meaning in that gap. He asserted that art is the product of two poles: "There's the pole of the one who makes the work, and the pole of the one who looks at it. I give the latter as much importance as the one who makes it."
Unlike illustrators who give viewers clear, immediately comprehensible visual narratives, Ashlie Benton distributes clues across her paintings, inviting viewers to discover or produce meaning much as a detective assembles evidence to solve a crime. (The connection between the interpretation of artistic symbols and the process of criminal detection is nothing new. Indeed, it is the basis for several novels by noted Italian philosopher Umberto Eco.)
Benton uses surprising juxtapositions to point to new, unexpected meanings. In doing so, she rehearses a process initially engaged by the Surrealists, who knew that startling contrasts could produce unpredictable responses. (Think of Salvador Dali's melting watch, goblet-lined dinner jacket, or lobster telephone.)
Benton's work is both emotionally mysterious and physically seductive. Her rich, handsome compositions employ a wide range of materials: oil paint, oil stick, acrylic, gold leaf, graphite, thread. Some of the works are saturated in heavily pigmented color; the blues and reds are especially vivid. Others are more minimal, with pale washes of paint over an almost white ground.
The scattered, often fragmented nature of the images paired with the deliberate naivete of Benton's drawing style has produced an oeuvre of apparent innocence, even vulnerability. But the unpretentious nature of her work belies impressive professional sophistication. The artist has had superlative role models, excellent training, and years of experience.
Benton was born in San Francisco, where her father Fletcher Benton is an accomplished sculptor, producing large, hard-edged geometric abstractions in painted steel or bronze. Aware as a child that she felt most "at home" with art, Ashlie chose to attend the California College of Arts, where she studied both fine and commercial art. She worked as a graphic designer for several years.
Then one day in 2009, she was driving to an appointment with one of her clients when she happened to hear a radio interview with California artist Squeak Carnwath. Fascinated by what the painter was saying, she stopped the car to continue listening. She was late to her appointment, but it didn't matter: Ashlie Benton's life had been changed forever. She went on to study with Carnwath. She learned, on a very profound level, how to use art materials and--even more importantly--how enriching the engagement with artmaking could be. Benton has been exhibiting her extraordinary paintings ever since.
So what do the eyes and ladder and headless sculpture mean? As a viewer, you are challenged to look carefully, ponder the possibilities opened by the "gap," and complete the artwork by creating your own meaning for it.