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Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013

A Modern Old Master

Oliver Benson at Timothy Cobb Fine Arts

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Visit Timothy Cobb Fine Arts to take in modern artworks the proprietor compares to the Old Masters in quality, technique and nuance, and describes as “unlike anything seen in Milwaukee.” On display through Nov. 16, “Recovered Age, A Mystic Iconic: Paintings by Oliver Benson” is divided into two series of oil paintings, mythological-iconographic and geometric.

The first group is syncretic, drawing from diverse spiritual and mythic traditions to form mysterious figural gestalts. Unpacking The Exiles (2011), Benson explains that the motif of pearls references the Buddhist concept of “purified essence, the part of a human being that rises out of the mess of the psyche.” Culturally coded symbols like this abound, but no singular narrative or message is proffered. Rather, Benson focuses on “what is held in common,” offering the viewer an opportunity to soak in the beauty of multiplicity.

The geometrics are miracles of dimensionality and hidden imagery. Stand across the room from The Hidden Palace (2010) to take in the full scope of color and form apparent in this vast canvas. Describing his process as “trying something, making small adjustments and trying again,” Benson uses only a compass and ruler—and eschews the use of artist tape—to create optical effects most could only approximate with advanced CAD software. Cobb quips, “This is the real McCoy—this is old school.”

Also on view are several of Benson’s pencil sketches, displayed alongside the oils and highlighting the phenomenal draftsmanship underlying the larger works. A single pen and ink drawing titled The Brothers (2009) also graces the exhibit, incorporating repeating images of scarab beetles and the artist’s own face to mind-bending effect.

Benson is formally trained in Tibetan thangka painting, Byzantine iconography and the Beaux-Artes tradition, but is also devoted to independent practice. Describing the meticulous process of hand mixing paints, he notes that the effects are subtle but the difference in quality apparent in the “richness in color.” Many of his works take months to complete, and his spiritual insight and incredible eye for detail are palpable upon entering the gallery.