The official art market may continue to gloss over surrealist artwork in favor of new modes of social realism (particularly the waves of confessional art unique to this age of networked communication), but this shouldn’t be taken as a wholesale repudiation of the ideas that informed the former movement. Take, for example, the fact that something as unflinchingly surrealist as David Lynch’s Twin Peaks has sustained enough public interest to inspire a lavish continuation of the series 25 years after its original televised run. I’d submit that this is no isolated occurrence. It seems that the accelerated politicization of all areas of life has never completely extinguished the desire to examine what Gerard de Nerval called the “second life” of dreams, and to use that second life as a rejuvenator of the “first” life when all other routes for action seem to be blocked. Another notorious psychonaut, Austin Spare, insisted that sleep was “better than prayer,” and recognized that taming the tides of psychic automatism was itself a revolutionary act of stealing fire from the gods.
Carl Abrahamsson, who has published the first collection of Swedish surrealist photographer / montage artist Tom Benson (1935-1999) on his Trapart imprint, is no stranger to this Promethean questing impulse. Having spent the better portion of his existence documenting what happens when people makes art “for life’s sake” rather than for secondary reasons, Abrahamsson has edited a selection of images that adheres to this ritualistic and exploratory tradition without sacrificing vital individuality (that is to say, we’re introduced to an artist who is more than just “the Gothenburg verion of ‘artist x’”…). The book is supplemented with testimonials by Benson’s former photo models, his widow Marja Sipola Cuss, and artist / curator Carl Michael von Hausswolff, and all of these recollections gradually cause a singular image of the artist to emerge. Most memorably, von Hausswolff presents him as the “captain” of a vessel that transcends boundaries of space and time in order to seek out the most interesting specimens of humanity and to engage in a riotous celebration of the senses. This tendency is strongly reflected in Benson’s own oneiric self-portraiture, in which he takes on a number of different personae (e.g. blindfolded martyr before the firing squad, ballroom dancer among ancient ruins, confidant of Edgar Allen Poe) and sets them in scenarios that are either implausible or just aesthetically novel, but in all cases typified by a rebellious, comical, and highly personalized dismantling of spatio-temporal boundaries. The effect is heightened when Benson drops in to scenes involving other historical titans, and suggests other possible variants on their life stories. For the image used as the cover of Visionary, William Burroughs’ interrogative face peers out from a bio-mechanical throne room as dual, symmetrically arranged images of the artist look on from above - the result is to make this archetypal rebel look like one of the imperious “control agents” that he had set out to destroy. Elsewhere, the ‘great dictator’ himself, Adolf Hitler, is shown proudly lording over a huge quantity of spent alcohol bottles, reducing the genocidal tyrant to a petty seeker of cheap thrills.
Aside from his own avatars and re-imagining of historical figures, one of the most noticeable elements in Benson’s image environments are the models acting as his seductive femmes fatales, who seem, in the grand surrealist tradition, to embody instinct and nature against pure rationalism. Generally confident in their appearance, they are not mere ciphers but have their own agency - something best represented by a selection of shots in which a trio of powdered nude muses in Venetian bird masks peeks inquisitively through a private library. Those women that he photographs ‘solo’ are, almost without exception, gifted with a radiant intensity that makes them feel like the real generators of the image-worlds surrounding them.
Whether it is the fact that these feminine icons rule over Benson’s dream worlds, or for some other reason entirely, his images are largely free from the images of explicit violence that we often expect of a properly “surrealist” undertaking (e.g. the razored eyeball of Buñuel’s film Un Chien Andalou). There are, on the other hand, plenty of instances of implied confrontation with both nature and rebellious artifice. In one scene, insectoid creatures viewed under a scanning electron microscope expand to a larger-than-life size and appear ready to feast on a sleeping human subject (in a humorous twist endemic to Benson’s work, one of these monstrosities has the chemical formula for ethanol emblazoned on its forehead). Elsewhere, a fleet of barn owls sweeps through an antiseptic institutional corridor as a possible human victim lies face down in a pose of knowing helplessness, a phalanx of plastic forks springs up from the shoreline, and a life-sized penis glans seethes within a suburban drawing room (incidentally, it’s the same room that was used for the Hitler scenario mentioned above - perhaps this is a sort of Bensonian analog to Lynch’s “Black Lodge”?)
Interestingly [spoiler alert], von Hausswolff closes his written appreciation by noting the likelihood that Benson never “physically left the Swedish west coast for more than 24 hours.” His widow’s personal recollections contradict this somewhat, claiming that Benson’s time as a sailor gave him much photographic raw material to become (in his own words) the “banner-bearer of the imagination”, while he was an enthusiast for foreign correspondence. If Benson did lack a real peripatetic life, or the kinds of traumatizing life events that are supposedly required for one to become a stereotypical “great” artist, I believe this testifies more to the force of the artist’s imagination, rather than less. It would also make the images that follow seem all the more fascinating, since they are closer to being conjurations of totally new worlds than half-rememberances of ones already visited. Benson’s mind seems naturally inclined towards becoming the eyes and ears of some ineffable force greater than itself, and so a “real life” geographical restriction could have actually given Benson the concentration needed to make art that did not simply externalize his memory, but which instead mined the subconscious for stories yet unknown to himself.
Benson did exhibit a visible commitment towards making a fantastic world that might surprise even him, and it is this which separates his work from the less inspired work that calls itself “surrealist” - the term has been semantically downgraded to mean nearly any situation that reaches a minimum acceptable public standard for “weirdness.” As ever, dreams are only as interesting as those who dream them, and while almost anyone can participate in the act of ostranenie [‘making strange’], it takes a high level of concentrated desire to make things really work, in addition to a refusal to keep one’s own personality ‘off limits’ for experimentation during the re-imagining of the universe. Tom Benson: Visionary is a singular reminder of exactly what can happen when such criteria for surreal artwork are closely followed.