File Note 119: Sadie Benning - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Leopoldine Core



Sleep Rock Images References Quote Biography Credits

Sleep Rock

Like most of Benning’s work, Sleep Rock makes me nostalgic for lives I’ve never had – people I’ve never known, things I’ve never seen. A language of images is employed to summon very personal feelings – the way one might associate a certain moment from their past with an image of a gooseneck lamp, Greta Garbo’s face, and the colour yellow – Benning curates their own collision of pictures through which to feel. Language doesn’t always come when viewing these works but a spectrum of emotion does: fear, anxiety, sadness, romance. The subconscious mind can speak urgently, though its messages aren’t always clear, and when experiencing these works, one is left alone with that cacophony of hidden feeling – a visual echo chamber. The words Sleep Rock are a poem on their own – a meditation on the nature of dualities. A solid, tangible thing, something you can throw through a window – juxtaposed with the ephemeral, fluid state of the mind looking inward.

Benning’s small-scale resin works hold an energetic, subliminal and often nightmarish quality that resonates throughout the entire show, the way dreams creep into our waking lives. Embedded with layers of enamel, spray paint, transparencies and cut out photos, looking at these works is like staring into a frozen pond with life deep down inside it, obscured by shadows. In Rebel, a scull is merged with a faint, altered image from the film Rebel Without a Cause – black, wormy shapes and blood red dots layered behind and over top. In Out of the Bag, orange smiley faces slide off of themselves like spirits leaving the body, violet tinged bricks in the background, a transparency of a vintage print of two white cats seated front and centre. In Glitter, black enamel paint is embedded with geometric shards of colour, like a slab of ancient stone cut open. These works employ fragmentation with a kind of gravitational pull, one that achieves both physical and emotional depth. They remind me in some backward way of Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage: that moment when the child first looks in the mirror and mis-sees themself through the image of their body as a single, unified entity. These resin works present, in some way, a more accurate representation of the self in the mirror – an inner self – one that is plural and partly obscured. And of course, the viewer cannot help but see their own face reflected there on the glossy surface – which is discomfiting, there is an impulse to recoil, to keep moving around these entombed mental spaces, in order to see them and not see them.

The larger works in Sleep Rock depict an internal world beyond the space of the mind – often actual, physical spaces that reflect private realities and obsessions. They call attention to all the ways that visual associations make welts on the human psyche, marking time with pictures. Composed of painted aqua resin, analogue photographs and digital prints, these works hover between media in a way that is now familiar to Benning’s practice, acting simultaneously as drawings, sculptures, photographic works and paintings.

In Hotel Fashion, an aqua-resin painting of pixelated looking loops of colour falls into darkness, like the final effects of a computer that is about to die. The piece is embedded with a photo of patterned velvet and an image of the hotel room Janis Joplin died in that has been digitally altered, red spilling over the shadowy image. The interplay between night and day figures heavily in these larger scale works, implying a subtle critique of time as we understand it – a sense that the present moment is in fact made up of fragments of all kinds of time: what we carry inside us from our own past and the collective past of other people. In Tree Mall, an aqua-resin painting of a tree with a white trunk is set against a daytime image of a mall in the ’50s. In Parking Lot, a contemporary video still of street racers at night is split in half by a towering aqua-resin painting of a purple-headed tulip. The flower has the stature and aura of a person making a silent speech – someone transcending corporate spaces for their own uses. This affection for the individual carries into F, a tender work comprised of pages from an unknown person’s scrapbook of celebrity clippings from the ’50s and ’60s, arranged alphabetically, each with a last name beginning with “F”. The pages themselves are arranged sparingly, with a varying logic to the layout of their subjects, many of whom were lesser known, including obscure background actors and an obituary for Bess Flowers, an extra who “never had her name known”. The yellowed pages are embedded in white painted aqua-resin and arranged in rows of four – Benning leaving their own measure of blank space between the actors. This same technique is employed in Cats, a grid of 46 intensely personal photographs of cats and kittens lounging and playing in the tawny light of an apartment sometime in the ’60s, all set against painted black aqua-resin. It is clear that the rooms of this apartment resemble the minds that inhabited them – ones we come to know intimately through their obsessive documenting, despite never seeing their faces.

Sleep Rock centres on the need of the individual to create alternative spaces – both physically and mentally – in order to survive. The show encapsulates a desire to connect with the subconscious realm – that place where we are all the most narratively free. There is no way to truly see oneself but inevitably this longing produces unique systems of order and imaginary worlds, dialogues that transcend time and space. Sleep Rock urges this night work – which may also occur in daylight. The show reminds me of a life without the Internet – or a life that avoids it at all costs – since the Internet stole the medium of the dream, remade it badly. And these works seem to take it back.


Eduardo Mateo: Cuerpo y Alma (1984) Sondor Records.

Side 1
1. Cuerpo y Alma
2. Nombre de Bienes
3. Maria
4. El Son Oro Scope 
5. Carlitos
6. El Tungue Le

Side 2
1. Lo Dedo Negro
2. El Boliche
3. Si Vieras
4. Un Canto Para Iemanja
5. La Casa Grande
6. El Airero

'I love the river – never unmoored by anything
it’s quiet now
And the silence is alone
except for the thunderous rumbling of things unknown
distant drums very present
but for the piercing of screams
and the whispers of things
sharp sounds and then
suddenly hushed
to moans beyond sadness – terror beyond fear' Marilyn Monroe, Fragments


Sadie Benning (b. 1973 Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA) lives and works in New York, USA. Benning has had solo exhibitions at: Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland (2017); The Renaissance Society, Chicago, USA (2016); the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA (2009); The Power Plant, Toronto, Canada (2008); Dia Foundation for the Arts, New York, USA (2007); and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, USA (2005). Benning’s work has been included in the following group shows: Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon at New Museum, New York, USA (2017); Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age, Museum Brandhorst, Munich, Germany and MuMOK, Vienna, Austria (both 2016); and Macho Man, Tell It to My Heart: Collected by Julie Ault, Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland and Artists Space, New York, USA (2013). Benning has participated in The Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art, USA (2013); Annual Report: 7th Gwangju Biennale, South Korea (2008); the Whitney Biennial, New York, USA (2000 and 1993); the White Columns Annual, New York, USA (2007); and La Biennale di Venezia, Italy (1993). Public collections include: ICA Boston, USA; BFI, London, UK; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, USA; MCA, Chicago, USA; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, USA; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA; MOMA, New York, USA; and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA.


Leopoldine Core is a writer based in New York. She is the author of the poetry collection Veronica Bench (2015) and the story collection When Watched (2016). 

Supported by the Sadie Benning Exhibition Circle: Charles Balbach, Albert and Holly Baril, Susan & Michael Hort and others who wish to remain anonymous.

This File Note has been supported by: Air de Paris, Paris; Kaufmann Repetto, Milan; and Susannne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects