Jane Benson  
Even the Plants Are Angry!

Taking its cues from the landscape, camouflage is patterned after the real and therefore artificial. Jane Benson’s series entitled Underbush consists of loosely gathered camouflaged garlands that hang in billowing assemblages, grazing the tops of our heads, threatening to catch us within the tangle of their foil foliage. The name for the series Underbush is paradoxical because it is a phrase coined by Benson whose play on the word underbrush(1) – shrubbery in deciduous forests – reverses our physical relationship to the greenery found underfoot. Instead of getting our ankles tangled in the underbrush, we can relate the underbush by looking up, a nod to the Bush administration’s use of surveillance and tracking systems of the Patriot Act. The works have been conceived as a critique of recent domestic policies in United States including the war on terror and the electoral process that supported George W. Bush’s presidency. Benson’s inventive use of the word ‘underbush’ inadvertently questions the individual’s position to the politics of the Bush family, strategies surrounding war, and the ways that political information is disseminated.

More generally , Benson’s interest in three-dimensional forms of camouflage can be read as a “masquerade of self-representation,”(2) in which the works initially make a decorative impression, and, on closer reading, reveal complex critiques of the superficial and decorative motifs. Works like Underbush and Hanging Bush call out politicians who have acted as chameleons, whose decisions are often orchestrated by indistinct, behind-the-scenes players whose identification within a larger group – the presidential cabinet, and the political party itself – blurs lines of accountability and visibility, two themes that are at the core of Benson’s sculptural practice. From her hanging garlands to the obsessively cut paisley smoking jackets called Bitches, to the most recent body of work on the subject of narcissism, Benson’s concern with the fluctuating representation of the self is equally personal and political. Camouflage can function as a disguise, or a Neil Leach describes in his book by the same name, camouflage is about self-protection and involves a loss of “the self – temporarily – in order to eventually preserve a sense of individuality,”(3) a strategy for combat, political machinations, and social advancement.

In order to better understand the above-mentioned works – Bitches, Underbush, and Hanging Bush – for their relationship to the illusive strategy of camouflage, it is worth looking back on some of its early appearances, or, more precisely, moments of concealment, in military and art histories. The use of camouflage by humans correlates to the development of combat technology. From ancient Aztec warriors to 12th Century Japanese samurais, flamboyant costumes for combat were used to intimidate the enemy. As the tools of combat evolved, it became more useful to be less visible.(4) Modern iterations of camouflage draw on the formal qualities of Cubist painting and in Picasso’s case, costumes that he made for Sergei Diaghilev’s 1917 ballet Parade.(5) The more recent and obvious master of camouflage is Andy Warhol, who produced screen prints of variously colored camouflage configurations in the late 1980s. Focusing on the aesthetics of camouflage, Warhol printed a number of the paintings in fluorescent colors, repurposing the original intention of camouflage – to conceal – back into a garish display that no longer functions to intimidate the enemy, working against the standards of visual pleasure as well as the discomfort of trauma experienced in wartime. Interestingly, Warhol’s Screen Tests (1964-1966) more richly capture the dynamics at play in the Factory where the process of losing oneself for the ultimate purpose of self-preservation has been documented as a constant struggle for those who sat for his film portraits. In Warhol’s work, like Benson’s, the question of identification reverberates. What are its markers? When do we make use of signifiers indicating military and political affiliations? Or do we disassociate completely by receding into the background?

An artistic project that speaks to the visibility of politics in everyday life is Martha Rosler’s collaged Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful (1967-72). Similar to Rosler’s suggestive wallpaper, Benson’s sculptural installations use techniques of camouflage – patterning associated with battle and warfare – to express how easy it is to lose sight of the ethically fraught war on terrorism which, for many, easily dissolves out of focus. As is the case of the most recognizable camouflage designs, this aggression is to be hidden within the graphic composition of familiar and therefore less visible recurring natural landscapes.

Beyond her interest in camouflage, Benson has produced an extensive body of work that examines how nature is represented in the built environment. In 2002, for the World Financial Center in New York City, she created a series of fake plants that were subtly but laboriously augmented. Up-close the fake trees’ leaves revealed unnatural shapes, a fantasy of future genetic mutations produced by environmental abuse and toxic exposure. Another recent public sculptural work is Imitation Day (2004), a massive camouflage ceiling garland produced for a White Castle restaurant in Jamaica, Queens. Like the Underbush installation at the Helen Pitt Gallery, Benson’s work with floral and camouflage installations in urban and corporate landscapes operate on many levels. Initially they can be read as decorative, but as the military references emerge, the works critique of the lack of authenticity in nature and identity in contemporary culture, and question how the aggressive qualities of war become displaced and ultimately palatable in daily life. Benson struggles with the visual pleasure associated with nature and traditional beauty, working to transform the expected décor of public spaces into simultaneously banal and fussy installations. Like Christmas streamers gone musty and brown, camouflage replaces the original glossy red and green foil garlands circling a fake tree at Christmastime.

Following the Underbush works, Benson produced a series under the title The Chronicles of Narcissism, which unpacked one of the most primary and pervasive human conditions. Integrating reflective and luxurious materials into installations and sculptural objects – swans, furniture, clothing, and globes – Benson highlights the contradictions implicit in narcissism, specifically the impossibility of true reflection. With its first literary appearance in t

he Greek myth of Narcissus, narcissism is a psychoanalytic disorder in which the patient overestimates her appearance and abilities and has an excessive need for admiration. In Narcissus’ case, he fancied what he saw in his reflection, and literally drowned in it. Narcissism is so universally experienced that it would be difficult to find an individual who does not have contact with this ‘condition,’ even as an external force produced by an entity outside the self. But narcissism is a human condition, or at least animalistic, and plants are low enough on the food chain that they are exempt from the culpability associated with waste, indulgence, and self-absorption. On the macro level, Benson’s Disco Globes (2005–6) are individually displayed on the axes of various globe stands, providing various positions in regard to globalization as a fractured reflection of the individual. Mirror Globe, a flattened disco ball, reinforces the limitations of any perspective. Though its flatness makes the surface of the world visible in a single glance, the globe is no longer true to its form.

Central to the exhibition The Chronicles of Narcissism was Naked Swan (2006), a creature whose reflection is reproduced ad infinitum through the use of a mirrored vitrine. A fully plucked swan is encased by a display mechanism that highlights every surface of its body including webbed feet, belly, and profile. From certain angles, the viewer is faced with a mass of plucked swans in perfect endless rows, revisiting the issue of identity that Benson raised in her Underbush series in which her use of camouflage techniques teased out the tension between visibility and blending in. Naked Swan is just one in a million in an army of countless, identical swans, collapsing the poles of narcissistic behaviors: self-obsession through scrutiny and the compulsive need to adhere to a nearly grotesque beauty standard. As a fetishized object, the swan is like the morphing face of the many plastic surgery patients/contestants who willfully sacrifice themselves to reality shows like Fox Television’s “The Swan.” Beautification is realized through numerous rounds of physical augmentation and the layers of individuality are peeled back to make way for sameness. Without the erratic indicators of beauty like a bump on the nose, a mole, gapped teeth, we are left with a near carcass.

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Ugly Duckling (1844) chronicles the transformation of a duckling into a beautiful swan. A reversal of the myth of Narcissus, Andersen’s ugly duckling is persecuted for his ugliness throughout the first year of his life. In the thaw of the spring, he wishes death as an escape from his loneliness and isolation, but is pleasantly surprised by his own reflection:

“Kill me,” said the poor bird; and he bent his head down to the surface of the water, and awaited death…. But what did he see in the clear stream below? His own image; no longer a dark, gray bird, ugly and disagreeable to look at, but a graceful and beautiful swan.

The former ugly duckling’s attractiveness is especially poignant after the suffering he has endured. The other swans’ appreciation of his appearance confirms that beauty is contingent on subjectivity and difference.

Within Benson’s two recent bodies of works – Underbush and The Chronicles of Narcissism – several concerns surrounding individual and collective identity are at play in life forms less developed than human beings. The ugly duckling’s wish for death is forgotten in the process of recognizing his beauty, made possible through a change in perspective and the recognition of self. A hyperbolic ugly duckling, Naked Swan is nearly reduced to flesh through compulsive adjustments and perspectival shifts. Underbush is also a play on perspective and positioning. Plant--like structures that should be pleasingly decorative turn into more aggressive weeds that refuse to blend in. In other words, they refuse to be complicit as camouflage. And so Benson’s precise reworking of patterns and forms quietly proposes resistance to mimicry and over-identification in the realms of aesthetics and politics.

Sara Reisman
Fall 2007

Published in the catalogue accompanying Underbush, 2007 at the Helen Pitt Gallery, Vancouver.

1 Underbrush is the name of a company that manufactures 3-D camouflage suits.
2 Leach, Neil, “Conclusion: A Theory of Camouflage, Camouflage (MIT Press: Cambridge, 2006), 240
3 Ibid, 246
4 Blechman, Hardy, Disruptive Pattern Material: An Encyclopedia of Camouflage (Firefly Books: Buffalo, New York and London, England, 2004), xxx
5 Ibid, xxx