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COMING FORWARD (c) Ella BenAmi 2017

Ella BenAmi: Unseen Terrain at the Daniel Raphael Gallery

22 November 2017 Ruth Hobley

Unseen Terrain is Ella BenAmi’s newest series of paintings, and the intimate ground floor space of the Daniel Raphael Gallery is devoted to these paintings. The title of the sequence alludes to concepts that have underpinned BenAmi’s work for the past 15 years, which she describes as an exploration of “mental landscapes” or “the landscapes of changing mind.”

BenAmi, herself born and raised in Israel, is influenced both by the Eastern concept of the metaphysical and Western tradition of Abstraction in her artworks. Both strains are visible in the composition of her paintings, mainly acryllics, which are fluid and shifting in appearance; explorations of form and colour in an abstract sense, rather than representational depictions of a visible reality.

Particularly suggestive is an earlier painting entitled Rorsh (2011), displayed in the basement of the gallery as part of a condensed retrospective of the artist’s career to date. A large canvas on which patches of dark acrylic blossom on white, the title of the painting hints towards its nebulous significance, the deliberate formlessness of its composition reminiscent of the inscrutable but highly suggestive markings of a Rorschach test.

From a brief survey of the exhibition, it would seem that BenAmi is an artist who has found her style and has largely stuck to it; there is little evidence at first sight of experiment or development. However, with longer study, subtle but significant differences begin to emerge between the paintings on display.

In her latest series, BenAmi has begun to combine her characteristic use of acrylic paint with an additional layer of markers. These comparatively constructive lines partially shroud the nebulous shapes beneath, providing an overlying structure, and emphasising the tensions between form and formlessness that are central to her work. These more highly textured works are a conscious movement on the artist’s part to a greater level of control over her craft. Such pieces are built up layer upon layer, allowing BenAmi to continue to re-shape and re-imagine her work as it unfolds upon the canvas.

Despite the artist’s move towards greater control and more visible intention within the composition of her works, there is something particularly compelling about those paintings where the material visibly vies for dominance over the artwork. Frequently the paintings which are most striking impact are those canvases which are not restricted by the boundary of a frame. The suggestively-titled Riot (2014-2017) is a prime example of this; its uncharacteristically dynamic swipes of paint threatening to break the boundaries of the canvas itself.

Many of the earlier works in the exhibition, whilst privileging fluidity over form, often nonetheless evoke particular forms or impressions; whether the hazy landscape view of Kieff (2013), or the bodily aspects of colour and shape in Commune (2013). By contrast, the more recent works are not as immediately reminiscent of a recognizable reality; their titles (Back Then (2017), Coming Forward (2017)) suggesting the depiction not so much of a visible world as of a temporal or psychological realm.


Image credit: Close up of COMMUNE (c) Ella BenAmi 2017

As is notable throughout the exhibition, the titles of works are extremely revealing in their demonstration of the artist’s concern with intersections and associations; between the visual and the verbal, the physical and the psychological. The captivating power of Rorsh in particular is the impression it creates of layers pared back and partially stripped away. In its resemblance to a burnt-out section of film strip, it offers an unsettling trompe-l’oeil effect, as though the viewer were not simply looking at the painting but looking through to something beyond. Like the Rorschach test that Rorsh so uncannily resembles, what the viewer gets out of Benami’s pieces, to a large extent, depends upon what they bring to them.

Unseen Terrain is at the Daniel Raphael Gallery until 23 November.
 
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