Transmission Gallery, Oakland, California
Continuing through November 27, 2021
“Illumination: Time, Containment and Bling” includes twenty-three table lamps, boxes and clocks by Garry Knox Bennett, the legendary Bay Area artist and craftsman who is renowned for chairs, tables, sideboards, desks and jewelry. Several pieces installed in a gallery vitrine match exquisite craftsmanship with Dadaist/Funk humor and wit. If the Bauhaus, that German academy of modernist style, was originally intended to marry traditional guild-based craftsmanship with modern technology and a machine esthetic, Bennett can be said to embody its beau idéal. Bennett, despite a stint at Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts, considers himself a mostly self-taught artist. Had there been “Alumni Bauhaus” bumper stickers, it is pretty certain that the self-directed artist — who hated high-school academics and preferred the solitude of shop class — would have laughed uproariously at the absurdity of the idea.
In an interview, Bennett recounted his entrance into grad school: “I’m generally the biggest guy in any factory, and they’re going to give me all the hard work. And I said, ‘I think I’ll go to art school.’ So I went to Arts and Crafts. And it was the best thing I ever did.” His exit was equally fortuitous: ‘But, yeah, it was good, man. I mean, it was a good environment. They didn’t have any goddamn English classes. When I left, the rumor was they were starting an art history class. I said, ‘I’m outta here. I’m outta Dodge.’”
Bennett’s larger-than-life personality is embodied throughout out the series of lamps. They are witty sculptures that are more appropriate for sculpture pedestals than surrounded by utilitarian iMac bric-a-brac on desks or nightstands. Bennett’s stunning mastery of a variety of materials and methods deserves to be appreciated as art, the expression of a creative sensibility transforming and transcending their purposes as utilitarian objects. This artist contravenes the recently popular (and maybe only partially ironic) notion of art as futilitarian “useless work.”
Five of the lamps derive from Surrealist sculpture, wherein various biomorphic characters (personnages) engage in mysterious doings: think of Tanguy, Ernst, Arp and Mirò. “Sergeant Pepper Lamp” (1996) is the fanciful psychedelic Art-Nouveau vibe of its Beatles namesake. “Cloud and Lotus Lamp” (1997), based on stylized motifs drawn from Asian art, resembles a crouching cat or monkey from whose head a golden parasol emerges. “Blowtorch Lamp with 4 Lights” (2013) suggests the non-functional. absurdist human-machine hybrids of Dada, with its coffeepot/torch powering flame-shaped a quartet of Christmas-tree lights. A related work, “Three Arm Lamp” (2014), employs the same flame-like bulbs, but here they emerge from the head of a simplified human or robot form who stands atop a blocky trident-shaped pedestal. “Flowers” (2009) is an exotic garden of a cluster of varied lightbulb flowers — round, flame-shaped, mushroom-shaped and tubular — that unite botanic with luminous efflorescence.
Other lamps are cleverly subversive variants of traditional lamp forms. “Paper Coffee Cup Lamp” (2014) and “STDBA #43” (2016) employ a paper coffee cup and a tuna-fish can as substitute reflectors, with hefty bases serving as pedestals. “Column with Dome Lamp” (2017) and “Post-Memphis Lamp” (2007) are so elegantly idiosyncratic that they might have come from the Memphis Milano design studio or postmodernist architect Michael Graves. Postmodernist borrowing of architectural motifs for domestic objects and vice versa can be seen in Bennett’s small but monumental boxes and cylinders, which could be maquettes for colossal monuments.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once noted that there are two types of people: those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. The apotheosized furniture of Garry Knox Bennett shows that he is clearly with the stubborn resistance.