If one saw this exhibit without reading the titles of Benjamin Terry’s artworks, one would have the impression of a light-hearted work of colorful plywood constructions, perhaps centered around the ideas of parallel lines and primary colors. In terms of the materials, it looks cheap. The work is rough-hewn.
But the titles reference a well-off family, with its own family traditions, business, and valuable possessions. The somewhat grungy reality of the art contradicts the story told by the titles of the pieces. For example, Grandpa’s Rare Coin is a large wooden construction made out of two sets of parallel strips of plywood, spray painted silver. Unlike a real coin, it’s not even a circle—it’s an oval (35 inches on the long axis by 27 inches on the short axis). It’s as if someone described a rare coin to a humble woodworker who had never heard of such a thing—“it’s round and shiny.” And Grandpa’s Rare Coin is what the woodworker came up with.
Throughout the show titles and objects have this humorous disconnect. “Heirlooms” and “jewels” are rude approximations of the real thing. It intrigued me was that Terry’s idea of what a rich family is like was comically out of date. The idea that rich people gobble down caviar seems right out of a Richie Rich comic book. He might as well have included a patriarch in a top hat and monocle like the little dude from Monopoly.
What is important here is the presence of the objects themselves. The various pieces called “Heirlooms” are constructed out of little wooden squares, either in a 2 by 2 square, a 2 x 6 rectangle, or a 4 x 5 rectangle. The squares themselves are constructed from strips of plywood, and the squares are not perfectly joined. There are four heirlooms in all, three are painted solid yellow (which makes the imperfections and gaps between the squares more visible) and one where the different strips of plywood are painted different primary colors—red, blue, yellow as well as black and white. In its color scheme, it resembles Mondrian, but Terry’s Family Heirloom I is a much more densely packed composition. There is no open space among the strips of wood. It’s less a drawing or a painting than a piece of rough carpentry.
Then four pieces are displayed in their own “display cabinet”—a large red plywood wall with inset holes in which three of the four pieces are placed. The four pieces in the display holes are Family Business I, Family Business II and Family Business III. They are on the right side of the wall and on the left side is the roughly gem-shaped Family Jewel. But just as the various pieces make no effort to look like actual valuable artifacts, the display case makes not effort to look like a fine piece of furniture. It is a flat, unadorned red wall mounted on clearly visible unpainted 2x4s. The three holes are composed of the same stiped elements as the objects they contain—it’s not obvious unless you look at the price list that the four pieces are meant to be separate from the red display structure. It looks like a single large piece.
Almost everything in this show is made of primary colors—red, blue and yellow. I always think of these as Superman colors—they are the most basic, least subtle colors an artist can use. This is one reason that Superman’s creators chose them—they have a poster-like quality, perfect for the cover of a comic book. And even though much of Terry’s work in this show has that graphic poster-like quality (parallel lines in primary colors), it’s not pure yellow, red and blue. Because Terry painted various strips of wood with different varieties of spray paint, some of the undercolors therefore leak through the top layer. This gives the strips of plywood a kind of worked-over look. It makes the work seem all the more rough-hewn and weathered.
Three of the larger pieces in the show feature ceramic cats on the floor in front of the plywood constructions. They appear to be Persian cats. I think of Persians not as the cats of rich people per se but as the cats of rich Bond villains (who are a particular subset of rich people, I suppose). Or as rich villains themselves, as in Mr. Tinkles in the movie Cats & Dogs. But of course, the cats in this exhibit are cheap ceramic cats. Like the rest of the objects in the show, their relationship to what they depict is as crude, cheap simulacra of the real thing. One of the cats is sitting in a box before a large construction of stripes and circular holes of different primary color. It appears to be a large approximation of a backgammon board (again, as if made by someone who had never heard of backgammon and only had the board described to her). This is Family Game Night I.
The titles suggest wealth, quality, tradition and elegance. The work, though carefully constructed, has a kind of haphazard casualness. It is not fine painting or carpentry. It contradicts the story told by the titles. The irony seems a little easy, but the amusing, light-hearted nature of the work itself is appropriate for this style of irony. Terry’s work is pleasurable to look at—seeming perhaps like easy pleasures with its primary colors and parallel lines. Earlier work of Terry’s I had seen included quite a bit of quite naturalistic drawing, but here he has simplified things to a small number of elements. But what lingers is the intensely hand-made feel of the work.