Lynda Benglis at Hepworth, Wakefield: Sculpture that’s hard to pin up

Polly Checkland Harding

Feminist icon and visionary American artist Lynda Benglis comes to the Hepworth. Here’s our preview of her defiant work.

Whether you think of it as art work or advertising, Lynda Benglis’ Centrefold will get your attention. Just over 40 years since it was first printed in the pages of Artforum, this shot of Benglis – wearing only sunglasses, a lengthy dildo, heavy 70s tan lines and an “uh, what?” expression – is still arresting. Perhaps because, in the age of Tracey Emin and an artist-directed 50 Shades of Grey film, the negotiation between art and sex feels as pressing as it did four decades ago.

Benglis, with knowing irony, used her body to get noticed in a male-dominated field

Benglis’ mother apparently predicted that it was this shot her daughter would be remembered for. She was right – and wrong. Exploiting the boundaries between provocation (the artist paid for the page space in Artforum herself) and defiance, Benglis, with knowing irony, used her body to get noticed in a male-dominated field. Over subsequent years, the artist cemented her position as an important and difficult to pin down (or up), figure – as the Hepworth’s extensive new survey of her work demonstrates.

Featuring around 50 works spanning the entirety of her prolific career, this is the first major UK exhibition of Benglis’ work. Her more recent ceramic and polyurethane works have never before been exhibited publicly; they lend a first-look frisson to more iconic pieces, such as the polyurethane pour Night Sherbet A (1968). Like this dense, sensual piece, made from layered slicks of coloured plastic, much of Benglis’ work interrogates the division between painting and sculpture, with ‘fallen paintings’ such as Baby Contraband (1969) seeping across the floor.

This interest in form feels coherent with the image that brought Benglis notoriety: in Centrefold, she inhabits the realm of the female pin-up, but recruits a dominant, male stance – as well as a badassery all of her own – to subvert it. This exhibition at the Hepworth is a chance to redress the kind of residual imbalance that gave this photograph its power – and shift attention back to where it belongs.

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