Tuesday, March 11th, will be an exciting day at Brockbank Junior High. Local sculptor, Court Bennett, will be visiting, lecturing, and sharing ideas with students in Patricia Taylor’s studio art classes. Future artists and students who simply enjoy studio arts will benefit from hearing from this successful Utah artist and Salt Lake Community College instructor.
So, who is Court Bennett, and what do we experience in looking at one of his sculptures? Something refreshing happens. When looking at Court Bennett’s sculptures, it becomes impossible to decide if it’s beautiful, ugly, approachable, frightening, known, or unknown. It causes us to stop and really consider our own opinions and to consider our preconceived notions about art. ”Natural and unnatural,” “human-made and organic,” and “mechanical and biological” are words used to describe Bennett’s work.
In asking how his art unifies such polar opposites, Bennett indicates that “unifying may not be the best word to use (though I don’t have a better one), but it does seem to me that all or most of the really interesting art being produced today explores edges and boundaries. The point at which two seeming opposites intersect is a very exciting place; to give a couple of metaphors, it’s where the match-head strikes against a rough surface and erupts into flame, or water and sand slowly swirl together in exactly the right balance to form quick-sand. A successful sculpture, for me, is one that exists in the space between polar opposites, where they meet, like the biological and mechanical universes. Because the work has the properties of both, it cannot rest solidly (or comfortably) in either camp, and so, therefore, is both and neither at the same time. The same goes for the natural vs. the unnatural or the human-made vs. the organic continua (and many others as well). In other words (and to put a fairly complex concept in simpler terms), I often play a game with family members once I have completed a new sculpture, in which they are asked to name what it is, and if they disagree and come up with many different interpretations, I know I have something special.”
In discussing how his works challenge assumptions, Bennett continues, “My sculptures certainly challenge preconceived notions about art in that I use materials in unconventional ways. One of the best questions I have learned to ask seriously is why or why not. Why can’t thousands of screws become a surface or skin rather than being used as fasteners? Why can’t cloth such as denim be stapled or screwed instead of sewn? I once had a professor tell our class that hot glue was absolutely forbidden and that anyone who used it would receive a failing grade, so free from undergrad to experiment on my own, I built a sculpture almost entirely from hot glue. It was a great exercise – liberating. Asking why and why not has allowed me to make sculptures that have not been made before. I’m grateful for that simple three-letter word.”
Yet, what comment, if any, does Bennett’s work offer about society? ”I don’t know that my sculptures make a comment on society (honestly, I avoid overtly political or social statements as a rule) save to say that in an increasingly polarized world, much fertile ground in between lies largely unexplored. We seem to be abandoning the middle in order to draw a hard, uncompromising line on either side. That is the hallmark of fear: of the future, of the other, and of ourselves and of our capacity for good and evil.”
In his artist statement, Bennett refers to his works as occupying a narrative space or as manifesting “quasi-life.” Bennett writes poetry and satirical pieces, so it makes us wonder if any of his artistic creations exist in his writings as well. He responds that “in the past, I never even titled my work – I think I thought it would somehow detract or distract from the object itself, but over the years I have come to love word play and puns and to title my work in reference to some sort of playful narrative or story or even a person. I still don’t want to spell it out too plainly, for if a picture is worth a thousand words, and a sculpture perhaps ten thousand (or ten pictures), and then if I describe my work too deeply, I might as well just write. I would have no reason to make sculpture.”
Bennett also participates frequently in teaching and in helping students, whether as an instructor at Salt Lake Community College, as a guest lecturer, or as a juror for student art shows. ”I love the creative atmosphere of the classroom and have always been close to educators. Both of my parents have taught ceramics for decades in the Jordan School District, and my wife currently teaches Jewelry at Hillcrest High School and Salt Lake Community College, so art education is in my DNA, in a sense. I like to help others develop their own talents and personal visions. It’s very rewarding to see an idea take fire in a student and know that you helped kindle that flame in some small way.”
In describing his most rewarding experience with helping students, Bennett says, “I really had a wonderful time at Idaho State University as Guest Lecturer in connection with my show at the Carr Gallery in Idaho Falls. Not too long ago, I was an aspiring MFA candidate at the University of the Arts and I know what the students were going through; a different artist visits your studio nearly every week, giving advice on how they would do things differently. They mean well, but it can be a very frustrating and confusing time. You really feel pushed and pulled from one direction to another. Knowing all that from my own experience in Philadelphia, I just tried to be supportive. I talked with several MFA sculpture students, mostly about what their professors and these other visiting artists had said before, and we tried to make sense of some of the feedback – what seemed to ring true, what was ultimately useful and what was not. It was a good time. I hope I helped them become a little more grounded in their artistic sensibility, rather than add to the confusion.”
For someone who proves influential to his students, which artists influenced him? Bennett indicates that “Serra, Goldsworthy, Sze and to a lesser extent, Judd, Koons or Long, are like sculpture gods, to me. To stand inside one of Serra’s Torqued Ellipses at the Dia in New York is incredible, a transcendent experience, sublime. I wouldn’t presume to somehow carry on an artistic legacy, though, for Serra or any of them. I don’t think they would want that and I don’t want that for my work either. I want to make work that hasn’t been made – that makes an impact and footprint of its own for future generations to sort out. I think if I came across someone making sculpture like I do, then I would change immediately and do something else.”
In describing his view of the current artistic tradition of the 2000s, Bennett reveals that “If anything, I think in some ways art has gone too far, and become too much. Art that can be anything and everything sounds very sexy, very seductive, but that is ultimately the death of art. Art that is anything and everything is in the end, nothing. My favorite saying is ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.’ That goes a long way toward how I feel about art today. I fully understand the rebellion against the elitists in the 60s and 70s who wanted to depose the tyrannical modernists and bring art to the masses, but we’ve gone too far and lost the quality and care, the craftsmanship that once was. We’ve lost aesthetic beauty in deference to voice and issue. That’s sad; I think really good artwork can and should be both. The pendulum needs to swing back a bit.”
His advice for aspiring artists? ”Make. Make art like crazy. Eventually you’ll begin to see patterns and shapes take form, almost like walking out of a heavy fog. Don’t worry if it’s bad or unpolished or stilted, just make it, and the touch, polish and refinement will come. The best painting or sculpture you ever make will be the next one, and then the one after that. Don’t worry about current trends or if you will earn a ton of money and be successful, or just what the definition of ‘successful’ is anyway. Just work like crazy and do good work, and if money and success come, then even better.”
To discover Bennett’s portfolio, samples of his poetry and satirical writings, biography, lists of exhibitions, and resume, refer to his artist website at: www.courtbennett.com/.
Please note: excerpts from this post were taken from a previous interview with Court Bennett and from a previous post published on July 7, 2013.