Paul Stephen Benjamin, Fourteenth Amendment, 2017, Blacklight, black power strip, black extension cord 204 x 420 x 6 inches, Edition 1 of 1, with 1AP

Paul Stephen Benjamin: In Dialogue

by Karen Comer Lowe

Paul Stephen Benjamin

Paul Stephen Benjamin is a multidisciplinary artist based in Atlanta. I became aware of him around 2010 and have curated his work over the years. While his art has always been based in the identity of blackness, the work from that time was more narrative driven. Back in 2012, I curated the two-dimensional, text-based paintings titled “ABCKL”; this work explored the color black through color and wordplay.

I also exhibited the early video work “Oh Say and ABCKL,” which explored performances of the National Anthem during past Super Bowls by notable African-American performers. The current work has further evolved into conceptual manifestations of blackness through the exploration of color, wordplay and video media. The video and sculptural work addresses the idea of blackness through civil rights and protest, investigations of blackness through concept, thought, and perception.

Paul Stephen Benjamin, ABCLK, 2013, tv moniters 

Karen Comer Lowe: The use of a television as a medium has become an integral part of your work. How did you begin using this as a medium, and how do you see it as a part of your discourse? How do you see this medium communicating  your  conceptual premises  to the public?

 

Paul Stephen Benjamin: I mostly am driven by an idea or concept. I mentally create the work before I put pen to paper. When I first started working in video, I wanted to execute the idea as quickly as possible. Originally, I used the old monitors because they were easily accessible and enabled quick execution of the concept. Over the course of time, I decided to expose the cords and all the equipment. I wanted to replicate the physical presence and history of the object and how I recalled seeing the older TVs used. The TV is a vehicle through which ideas are communicated. I use TVs as an audio-visual medium to answer a question I have been considering in my work that asks :  “If the color black had a sound, what would it be?”

Paul Stephen Benjamin, Black is the Color, 20155 channel video, color, sound, loop (04:33 minutes)Minimum dimensions: 120 x 120 inches,

Edition of 5 plus 2 AP

KCL: Your work addresses concepts of blackness through political discourse. In “Black is the Color” and “God Bless America” you have used video of performances by famous African-American singers. Do these iconic performances  further communicate the concept of the work without distracting from the core idea?

 

PSB: Certainly, I research and use many different concepts in my work, but when I create the work I am thinking artistically, historically, aesthetically and conceptually. Often, when people describe my work they are thinking politically. In the case of Nina Simone and “Black is the Color” she sings four words and repeats them in three intervals. The song has been identified as an Appalachian folk song that Nina Simone popularized. My focus is to create work that has a balance between aesthetics and concept.

Paul Stephen Benjamin, Concerto for Civil Rights: Ode to John Lewis, 2020, Black light installation, 144”x144”

KCL: When thinking of Civil Rights, I think traditionally, the  black-and-white photographic image is most representational through art . You have chosen to present the idea conceptually using the color black or through a selection of song. How do you see your work adding to the visual representation of the Civil Rights movement in this heavy political climate?

 

PSB: Conceptually the Civil Rights Movement is a great starting point for my work. I grew up in the wake of many of the groundbreaking events and the lasting impact of the images and sounds have greatly influenced my work. Through the Civil Rights Movement, I see the evolution of Blackness. Conceptually, this is the relationship between the color black, the sound of the color black, and Blackness.

Paul Stephen Benjamin, Ceiling, 2017,Tempered glass, Dimensions variable, Dimensions, as installed: 144 x 144 inches Edition 1 of 3, with 2 AP

KCL: What is your studio practice? Being a multidisciplinary artist, does the medium reveal itself to you, or do you decide on which medium to use for each work?

 

PSB: When I work, I believe in exhausting an idea until its purpose has been fully developed. This allows me to push the idea into every material that is available.

Paul Stephen Benjamin,Black Cotton Flag Made in Georgia, 2019,Black cotton, flagpole,

168 x 324 inches 

KCL: You  have showed at the Studio Museum in Harlem . How did this  impact your career? Also, is the work in any museum collections? Any upcoming exhibitions you want to mention?

 

PSB: The Studio Museum in Harlem was a great opportunity; the exhibition ran concurrently with my MOCA WAP exhibition. Both were in the fall of 2017. Since that time, I have been fortunate to exhibit in many different places, including the Telfair Museum in Savannah, GA (2018); Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York, NY (2019); The Havana Biennial in Matanzas, Cuba (2019); ICA at VCU, Richmond, VA (2019); the MAC in Belfast, Ireland (2019); Crystal Bridges Museum and The Momentary in Bentonville, AR, 2020. A number of institutions and foundations have acquired my work.  I am currently exhibiting at The Hudgens Center for the Arts for the Hudgens Prize through November, 14, 2020, Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University Through December 19, 2020 and The University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington, KY, through February 13, 2021. He will also participate in Prospect 5, rescheduled October, 2021.  

Paul Stephen Benjamin received his B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his M.F.A. from The Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design at Georgia State University. In 2016, Benjamin exhibited both Black is the Color at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA and his video installation God Bless America at Poem 88.

Karen Comer Lowe is currently working at the oldest arts center in Atlanta, Chastain Arts Center. 

She has been a curator in museums, galleries, and arts institutions for over twenty years. She has curated a number of groundbreaking exhibitions, with artists such as Hank Willis Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Pam Longobardi, Radcliffe Bailey and Elizabeth Catlett amongst others. She is currently producing a series on Instagram Live, called "Creative Conversations". These are casual conversations highlighting the artistic practice of artists, creatives and arts professionals within the African Diaspora.  Past featured guests include Alfred Conteh, Sheila Pree Bright and Halima Taha.