Paul Stephen Benjamin is an artist who doesn't like to over-explain his work.
Unlike some conceptual artists who feel compelled to tell the viewer exactly what to think, Benjamin is comfortable and confident enough in his own artistic vision to let his work speak for itself.
Benjamin's "Reinterpreting the Sound of Blackness," which opened at Telfair's Jepson Center on Jan. 26, is high art at its apex. Before entering the gallery, viewers are confronted with an enormous all-black American flag Benjamin sewed from cotton in his Scottdale, Ga., studio.
Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is then immediately met with a bank of 54 video monitors with images of Aretha Franklin and Lil Wayne performing "God Bless America" surrounded by red and blue flashing lights. To the left is a black-light fixture illuminating the corner of the room, and to the right is a line of video monitors affixed to the wall blinking images and letters spelling out "S-A-Y-*-I-T-*-L-O-U-D." Next to that is a series of large-scale photographs of African-American men against a black background staring out at the viewer with fixed looks. Around the corner is another bank of 40 video monitors that feature Billie Holiday and Jill Scott performing their respective versions of "Strange Fruit" surrounded by a child swinging back and forth in an atmosphere of saturated blue.
What does it all mean and what is the viewer to take away from such a full sensory experience?
"I don't want to dictate what people see. I'm just in this process of reinterpreting or representing these things," explains Benjamin. "Sometimes it's a cacophony. Sometimes it's a symphony. And sometimes it's quiet. I'm not trying to dictate what it is. I'm not looking at the limitations of what people see, but trying to create this expansive discussion around it."
Benjamin was recently named an artist to watch in 2018 by the New York Times and the exhibition at Telfair is the largest solo museum exhibition of his to date, which includes some never-before-seen works.
"His work has gotten a lot of attention in the past two years or so," says Rachel Reese, Telfair's associate curator of modern and contemporary art. "It's wild and beautifulâ€¦ It's also a very subtle, poetic way to explore difficult ideas."
What viewers take away from the experience depends on what they bring to it. But regardless of your perspective, you will be challenged by what you see in one way or another.
"I seek this balance of aesthetics and concept," says Benjamin. "I'm interested in a dialogue and this connection of the in-between."
Benjamin's artistic method is to reappropriate, repurpose, and reinterpret various elements of culture and then present the finished creation as a way of promoting conversation and contemplation.
"It's really about compressing time and space, so when I'm doing these things, I'm looking at what the initial intent was," says Benjamin. "And it's elevated because you can elevate yourself by creating something."
With his piece "Flow," which consists of a series of photographic panels of the faces of black men staring out at the viewer from a background of murky blackness, Benjamin is at once teasing and testing the viewer's perceptions. He was once asked if the men were all convicts, when in fact they are all professors and professionals (one of the images is of Benjamin himself). The question revealed the perception.
"There's a conversation that's happening," says Benjamin about his work. "It's about that space in between. What is public? What is private? What's too close? And how do you engage?"
This Thursday, Feb. 8, at 6 p.m., Benjamin and Reese will engage in a public conversation at the Jepson that is free and open to the public and is sure to provoke further discussion and thought.
IF YOU GO
What: "Paul Stephen Benjamin: Reinterpreting the Sound of Blackness"
When: Exhibit through May 6; W.W. Law lecture is 6 p.m. Feb. 8
Where: Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.
Cost: Lecture is free and open to the public