Nomadic Portrait Painter
Robert C. Morgan
Stephen Bennett is like no other portrait painter I have met. Typical of the coincidences that happen in today’s global art environment, I had just seen the rushes of a film by abstract painter Jeffery Collins in which Bennett is interviewed. He plays a remarkable role, not only because he is the single portrait painter included in the film, but because of how he is contextualized by the larger majority of artists dealing with new forms of abstraction. While Bennett is not acting, he projects an actor’s personage. Some weeks later, I discovered the artist was simply being who he was, He talks naturally about what he does, where he has traveled, and who he has met along the way. He has traveled in thirty countries seeking indigenous and traditional people who will pose for portraits that will preserve and celebrate the diversity of cultures he has encountered.
Bennett’s portraits are mainly of people who live on various islands, continents, and archipelagos in the southern hemisphere of this tiny globe, dark-skinned people who adorn their bodies with colorful garments, beads, and feathers, people who appear differently than the kind of standardized personages we take for granted in the north. Bennett’s inclusion in the film, provisionally titled “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue,” might suggest that the artist is speaking about his work as a portraitist as if he were living in some exotic place, paradoxically here and there at the same time. Given that his major works are done with tribal people, many of whom have had little or little or no direct acquaintance with the Western world, one senses that by empathizing their outsider position with regards to our Western consciousness, Bennett wants to augment their normative life-style while at the same time exposing their unfettered liberation as shown in their manner of dress according to the cultural tradition to which they belong. In doing so, they enact their daily rituals close to the way they live and express their feelings. A portrait made of a mature Massai women from Arusha, Tanzania, titled The Green Bead (2002) would be one example; the young refugee from Myanmar, Thailand in Long Neck Bling (2007) would be another. The smile on the woman from Massai is outward and friendly, whereas the child is more reserved and patiently dignified in her expressivity.
As I gaze at another favorite portrait painted in 2007, I am taken not only with the heightened quality of emotional reserve in the subject’s face, but with the audacity of color the artist employs to augment this quality. The portrait is relatively large-scale, measuring 80 x 64 inches. The subject is a man – perhaps, middle-aged – from the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua in New Guinea. He has Negroid features and wears a dark beard with no apparent mustache. His headdress is sewn with brightly red and orange feathers stemming from the top of a thickly woven band across his forehead. The actual scale of the portrait would suggest a kind of heroic statement, less about the human condition as we might understand it in the West, which is largely an abstract idea expressed by existential philosophers primarily in Europe at the end of the Second World War. Rather he is interested in the kind of diversity found among human beings today that have come into our consciousness, partially through the use of advanced information media, where diverse populations from around the world comprise a humanist mosaic synchronically engaged with one another.
In his paintings, Bennett works in three or four varying sizes, aesthetically determined not only by the price of the commission, but according to the potential impact of the subject’s face to project an intimate view of humanity. The measurements of a painting, such as Charcoal and Blue Sky, would be considered large. Others go even larger, as in his portrait of an Australian Aboriginal from Arnhem, Australia, titled Welcome to Beswick (2003), which measures 10 x 9 feet. There are, of course, other smaller sizes as well: the large ones hold a significant weight.
Bennett carries himself well. There is a sense of ease instilled within his character that makes you want to know more, to understand his thinking in relation to how he understands painting. His decision to paint portraits in the manner he paints them, filled with color substituting the normal shadow and light that often defines the human face. What is not always clear is the degree of Bennett’s exposure to environments that are not easily found on the tourist track. This I learned later when the artist came to New York in the fall of 2013 and we had an occasion to talk over lunch. One may be tempted to regard his portraits from an anthropological perspective from cultures neither Western nor Northern, neither developed nor (strictly speaking) undeveloped.
This becomes problematic for Bennett who sees his work as an artist neither in anthropological or academic terms. He disregards the tourist trade when he is traveling in order to remain focused on the indigenous people that he intuitively sees and chooses to paint. Whereas Westerners may assume that tribal-based cultures are undeveloped, a relativist assumption primarily from the “first world,” such an assumption would either be seen as a threat or as a meaningless of irrelevant comment among non-Western those who have not as yet been bulldozed into becoming participants in such an “advanced” culture through developed ready to transform their longstanding thatched homes and jungle villages into tourist playgrounds.
While Bennett’s portraits are not representations of the first world, the portraits often appear from somewhere else, from remote places where tribal people engage in a more sophisticated, ritualized life-style in contrast to the calculated chaos seen in Western urban environment, deftly segregated lift-styles conditioned according to money and class. However, in the quickly evolving global village (first predicted by media-analyst Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s) before the technology was fully capable to facilitate making it happen, these “remote” places suddenly became not so remote, except for the fact that competing servers were not been willing to install their satellites in places where profits had no guaranteed margin other than their potential to incrementally increase the power of global markets through augmenting the trade of resources, which are present in the southern hemisphere, but not fully realized in terms of their market potential.
Stephen Bennett is an artist, a painter of portraits on the global scene. His point of reference is focuses on tribal people living according to the old ways, the traditions of their culture, going back over multiple millennia. They are people whose culture – indeed, the very meaning of culture – is in perpetual danger of extinction. When he embarks on a voyage outside of his home base in Pennsylvania to other areas of the world less mediated than his own, Bennett lives according to the circumstances presented to him, often among tribal communities who are empathetic to his mission as a world portrait artist. He, in turn, has acculturated himself to the various conditions under which tribal people have chosen to live, and therefore, has grown equally empathetic to the people who are represent the true meaning of culture as a living phenomenon ever so close to the art of living. These are the people who provide the subject matter, the raw material of his art.
What does a broad smiling boy from the Trobiand Islands wearing fragrant flowers have in common with a Druze man from Acre, Israel? One might notice the resemblance of the color scheme used in each of these recent portraits. Although each portrait represents a different generation, a different culture, and a different geography, the portraits are formally connected on the basis of color. This is generally true in the paintings of Bennett. His manner of using color is deliberate, but quite as obvious as one would imagine. Given a quick glance, any grouping or cross section of the artist’s portraits has a chromatic consistency and layout procedure that appears connected and that ultimately contributes not only to Bennett’s style of painting, but to his visionary portraiture. Having noted the brilliant colors found in garments worn by members of a communal or tribal culture, these portraits are meant to being this festive chromatic scale into the portraits.
In that Bennett concentrates on people not normally encountered in the urban north, he is interested in inventing a style of portraiture different from the guilds employed by painters such as Rembrandt and Fran Halls in seventeenth century Holland. Although he does not disparage these painters, his invention is to find an alternative palette than avoids the somber neutrality given to portraiture in the European Baroque and Classical traditions. Bennett is interested in the world that is finally awakening in the southern hemisphere where color pervades daily living and thus contributes to the manner in which people identify themselves in relation to one another.
Put concisely, Stephan Bennett wants portraiture to continue, to outlast the past and to come into a future tense, using photographic notations as a base to work from, but also from being able to look closely and directly at his subjects, and to examine facial features, expressive glances, and reflections that bring them into the present, as they become part of the awakening of a new world order, which include a new concept of the social, where everyone plays a distinct and vital role, where “difference” is ultimately the next step to finding a commonality at the dawn of cultural globalization.
A further word needs to be said regarding the more radical approaches to portraiture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that originally broke from the neutralizing affects of the Classical approach. This is to contextualize the work of Bennett as a colorist whose portraiture operates as a signifier of the informational environment in a way that clearly extends the portraiture of Van Gogh and Gauguin or slightly later the works of the German Die Brucke and the French Fauves.
In this context, one must remember that some of Van Gogh’s formal ideas were influenced by his exposure to Japanese woodblock prints, and that Gauguin, in particular, sought to discover a new kind of facial/ body structure among the natives of Tahiti and other south Pacific island habitations. Clearly both artists were inclined toward color as an expressive vehicle for painting. The medium of portraiture seemed an accurate focus by which to experiment with color through the transference of pigment into light. The examples are numerous in works of both artists, including Van Gogh’s neighbors in Arles and Gauguin’s numerous portraits of Tahitian women. The use of unmixed primary and secondary color in relation to the human face was further explored by artists, such as Erich Heckel and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner from Die Brucke in Dresden concurrently with Fauve painters Henri Matisse and Maurice de Vlaminck in Paris (1905 – 1912).
For Bennett, the range of colors employs primaries and secondaries as background for his mostly frontal facial representations. The backgrounds are often organized into quadrants that appear to bleed into one another. This further suggests the colors that will appears in the faces, such as the portrait of Mecat Balan from the Bario highland of Sarawak who wears a hat called Tapang Luto and weighted ear lobes to enlarge the ears, suggestive of the wisdom of the Bodhisattva. Invariably, the primaries – red, yellow, and blue – enter into the brushwork of Mecat’s furrowed facial expression. This appears in contrast to the smooth partially shadowed face of a Nama adolescent from a village hear Keetmanshoop in Nambia. In each case, despite the contrasts in age and demeanor, the background functions as a kind of chromatic support to accentuate the directness of the facial expression making contact with the viewer. Color is an essential vehicle for the delivery of emotion in Bennett’s portraiture. What I have attempted to reveal is that this process of coloration and formal directness comes from a tradition in portrait painting located in the West. Taking this as a starting point, Stephen Bennett has discovered a means by which to give color a new kind of heightened sensory reality in painting that he believes will influence our understanding of non-Western people struggling to maintain their role as part of the collective meaning and memory of human beings alive in the twentieth-first century. Such is the enormous potential of art as applied by painters such as Stephen Bennett to such a purpose.
Robert C. Morgan is a critic, writer, painter, art historian, and lecturer who lives and works in New York. In 1999, he was given the first Arcale award in international art criticism by the Municipality of Salamanca, and in 2011, was inducted into the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in Salzburg. Dr. Morgan became a Fulbright Senior Scholar in 2005, residing in Gwangju. Author of many books, essays, reviews and monographs, he is Professor Emeritus in Art History at the Rochester Institute of Technology and concurrently teaches at the School of Visual Arts and Pratt Institute.