It’s been a while since I’ve been to an exhibition where I’ve seriously, violently, wanted to rip the artwork off the wall and run away with it into the night like a gentleman thief. Mario Benjamin’s pieces from his first solo exhibition in Paris at the Maison Revue Noire have left me really hoping that Father Christmas reads AQNB…
“I begin with a formal sketch, I deconstruct it until it is destroyed… and then it appears… within the light.” Mario Benjamin
Benjamin has been painting since he was 14 years old, and is now one of the leading Haitian artists of the 21st century. He has shown his work across the world, from Belgium to Mexico, and his Maison Revue Noire marks his first solo showing in Paris. But being a “Haitian artist” was never what Benjamin was after. Starting with realism, then hyperrealism, art quickly became an introspective study of his own vulnerable psyche and moved into the abstract. His pieces can be read chronologically: increasingly anxious and hysterical until there arrives a climactic point where his work becomes a landscape wherein Benjamin confronts his demons through deconstruction, hence his calling them ‘autoportraits’. Although here his work remains on canvas, Benjamin is not limited to a paintbrush. He is known for his skills using a variety of artistic media including installation work, lighting, projections and sculpture, often using unconventional materials such as hair, flora and furniture.
This solo exhibition is a powerful collection of self-confrontations. There is a sense of the incredibly private, somehow exaggerated by the logistics of the space: moving through different corridors, into different rooms, even up stairs, the visitor is in someone’s home. There’s even a sofa on the second floor to make yourself comfortable in –or not really. There’s a feeling of intrusion, as if you have barged into a psychotic dream and, although it feels familiar, it’s not yours.
This oneiric atmosphere can be traced directly to the soul of the pieces. Aggression, struggle and panic rear out from abstract faces, trapped in shadows and violent brushstrokes scratched across the canvas. Colour contrast is important, with neon reds and yellows set against solid black. There is chaotic drama everywhere in Benjamin’s volcanic palette. It’s personal, and beautiful, and sad.
The second floor holds, for me, the most breathtaking of the pieces displayed. A twelve-piece tableau gives us a dramatic, almost schizophrenic cartoon strip, with mad reds and blues spiralling from one canvas to another. While I was standing with my notebook in hand, every single person to come up the stairs stopped in silence. Perhaps they too felt a pathos with Benjamin, his own struggle so acute that it spills over the edges.
Do I still want one of Benjamin’s paintings for Christmas? Yes and no. The exhibition at Revue Noire is an experience, and whilst each piece is individually brilliant, the story comes from the ensemble.