Billy Al Bengston has been a part of the Venice Beach scene in California since the late 1950s. He was one of the early artists of the important Ferus Gallery along with Ken Price, John Altoon, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, Ed Kienholz and Ed Moses. Best known for his various symbols such as sergeant stripes, iris flowers (referred to as Draculas by his friend Ken Price) and anthuriums, which became his personal signatures and characterized his artwork for decades. Bengston started working in clay, but switched to painting on canvas, metal and paper and creating collages. He is a serious artist, but never takes himself too seriously. Focusing on his signature icons creates a readily available device, partly eliminating the need for compositional decisions and allowing him to critically explore painting, while seemingly poking fun at some aspect of contemporary culture or consumerism. Bengston’s art, for the most part, is indescribable and after five decades maybe that has been his grand plan, to keep us guessing and wondering, what is the point—maybe there is no point other than challenging viewers and critics alike to just LOOK, ask a question, but decide for themselves what the message might be. Abstract and colorful, infused with wacky imagery, his art is never slick, maybe a bit irreverent, but always humorous and painterly with brushstrokes, drips, personal touches and a bit of kitsch.
This exhibition is not only the gallery’s first solo show for Bengston, but the first presentation of a series of paintings he produced from 1992-1994. Like much of his art, and as the title might suggest, this body of work spawned from a personal aspect of his life. Conceptually, it is classic Bengston, but with new imagery—a heavy dose of iridescent paint, psychedelia, island culture and large undefined blobs flying through the air—giving one the sense of looking at earth from outer space through a meteor shower. Bengston frequently referred to this series of paintings as “human comedies.” So, once again, leaving us to our own imaginations.