Exhibit unabashedly states ‘Black is beautiful,’ gives nod to John Lewis

A detail of artist Paul Stephen Benjamin's "Black is Beautiful" (2019), manually typed text on cotton paper.
Courtesy of Stephanie Lloyd
A detail of artist Paul Stephen Benjamin's "Black is Beautiful" (2019), manually typed text on cotton paper. Courtesy of Stephanie Lloyd

Credit: Stephanie Lloyd

Credit: Stephanie Lloyd

Black is both part of the color palette and a social identity in Paul Stephen Benjamin’s solo show.

Paul Stephen Benjamin is the 2019 winner of the Hudgens Prize for Georgia artists, which comes with a $50,000 award and a solo exhibition at the Duluth arts space, the Hudgens Center for Art and Learning. But Benjamin’s accomplishments are legion, with a 2014 Artadia award and 2019 Joan Mitchell Foundation grant under his belt, shows at New York City’s Marianne Boesky Gallery, the High and a turn at Prospect 5 in New Orleans in 2021.

His exhibition “Compositions in Absolute Black” is more proof, a judiciously edited display of only five elegantly terse works. But walking into the exhibition is a transportive, often staggering experience. Benjamin’s work is minimalist in effect. But unlike some conceptual artworks — that can feel divorced from the human touch — Benjamin’s artwork in “Compositions in Absolute Black” has the emotional pull of music, carrying you along despite yourself, operating on levels of feeling and meaning below the surface.

“Compositions in Absolute Black” offers the odd sensation of accessing the inner voice running inside another brain, like a self-talk soundtrack. Nowhere is that sensation more profound than in 24 works on paper titled “Black Is Beautiful (Royal Typewriter).” Those 24 pages are imprinted with the typewritten phrase “Black Is Beautiful,” written as a kind of mantra or incantation. It’s a statement and an assertion, but it’s also an argument to the haters. In between the margins of that phrase “Black Is Beautiful,” other phrases and names crowd in — Kamala Harris, Nina Simone, Nipsey Russell, the phrase “Black queens are beautiful,” prison reform, gun control, “I love Cynthia” — intruding on and enhancing that essential phrase.

Artist Paul Stephen Benjamin the subject of a solo show "Compositions in Absolute Black" at the Hudgens Center for Art and Learning and is the 2019 Hudgens Prize winner.
Courtesy of Paul Stephen Benjamin
Artist Paul Stephen Benjamin the subject of a solo show "Compositions in Absolute Black" at the Hudgens Center for Art and Learning and is the 2019 Hudgens Prize winner. Courtesy of Paul Stephen Benjamin

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

That phrase, “Black Is Beautiful” comes out of the consciousness raising of the ’60s, a way to express self-love and identity in the face of a barrage of external and internalized racism that questioned the dignity and worth of being Black. But as much as with today’s “Black Lives Matter,” there is a pathos in those phrases. Why is there the continued need to assert one’s humanity? It’s the poetry and the heart of “Compositions in Absolute Black,” which like all of Benjamin’s work deals with the existence of “Black” beyond limited, narrow, colonized mindsets.

Across the room, we see the source of the phrase, pecked out on a vintage typewriter in a video projected on the opposite wall, “Sonata in Absolute Black.” The work is part of an enveloping soundscape heard in the clicking of those typewriter keys and the satisfying punctuation of the carriage return. The room echoes with that antiquated typewriter clatter, which jostles with another repetitive soundtrack.

"Daily Meditation (Black Is Beautiful)" (2020), video projection, by Paul Stephen Benjamin.
Courtesy of Stephanie Lloyd
"Daily Meditation (Black Is Beautiful)" (2020), video projection, by Paul Stephen Benjamin. Courtesy of Stephanie Lloyd

Credit: Stephanie Lloyd

Credit: Stephanie Lloyd

In a video piece that plays out on 36 TV screens “Daily Meditation (Black Is Beautiful),” a Black man’s hand strikes the same black piano key over and over on a keyboard. It’s a parallel insistence to that typewritten phrase, an assertion of self.

"Concerto for Civil Rights (Ode to John R. Lewis)" (2020), black light, black fixture, black power cords, black power strips by Paul Stephen Benjamin.
Courtesy of Stephanie Lloyd
"Concerto for Civil Rights (Ode to John R. Lewis)" (2020), black light, black fixture, black power cords, black power strips by Paul Stephen Benjamin. Courtesy of Stephanie Lloyd

Credit: Stephanie Lloyd

Credit: Stephanie Lloyd

As much as those often contrapuntal sounds create a strange musical presence in the space, a sculptural work bathes the gallery in a lilac glow that works its own sensory magic. A 12-foot black light triangle containing two smaller triangles nestled inside stands as a monument to John Lewis, bathing viewers in its uncanny fluorescent glow. “Concerto for Civil Rights (Ode to John R. Lewis)” makes you think simultaneously of the ’60s black light and how ideals of the past continue on, illuminating our lives even when we’re unaware. Black light is a metaphor for Blackness itself in Benjamin’s hand, something other than societal assumptions about what Black is or means, defying the idea that “Blackness” is synonymous with darkness. For Benjamin and many others, it glows.

EXHIBIT

“Compositions in Absolute Black”

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays, through Nov. 14. Free. Hudgens Center for Art and Learning, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway, Building 300, Duluth. 770-623-6002, thehudgens.org.

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