May 25, 2019 - Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara - James Benning: Quilts, Cigarettes & Dirt (Portraits of America)
May 25, 2019

Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara

James Benning, Wooden Boxes, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

James Benning
Quilts, Cigarettes & Dirt (Portraits of America)
May 16–July 14, 2019

Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara
653 Paseo Nuevo
Santa Barbara, CA 93101
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Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara (MCASB) is pleased to announce the solo West Coast museum debut of independent American filmmaker and artist James Benning, James Benning: Quilts, Cigarettes & Dirt (Portraits of America). For more than 40 years exploring the film medium, Benning has engaged with history, memory, and documentary traditions, often encompassing a rigorous treatment of the American landscape. The exhibition, curated by Abaseh Mirvali, MCASB Executive Director and Chief Curator, features the artist’s observant eye in a series of intimate and distinctly American portraits, including a new body of work shown for the first time. The exhibition builds upon MCASB’s history of providing the first West Coast museum platform for emerging and established contemporary artists, presenting visitors with the most innovative and experimental contemporary art of today.

Before becoming a mathematician, filmmaker, artist, and professor, James Benning grew up in Milwaukee’s Industrial Valley. This highly segregated, working-class region punctuated by urban decay has influenced Benning’s artistic approach as well as the historical, social, geographical, and economic contexts he foregrounds in his work. Benning defines himself as much as his subjects in his long-time affinity with a diverse array of American landscapes and portraits, the extended gaze with which he explores his subjects (a hallmark of his aesthetic), and his propensity for examining the nature of the fringe and what it means to those who make their lives in that figurative, and often literal, no man’s land.

Much like Walker Evans' photography of the 1930s, Missouri Pettway's quilts of the 1940s, and Andy Warhol's diverse artistic contributions of the 1960s, Benning extrapolates from his life history to discuss his America, using the immediacy of portraiture to do so. It is through this traditional technique that James Benning: Quilts, Cigarettes & Dirt (Portraits of America) illustrates that in the act of rendering others the artist ultimately and necessarily also renders a portrait of himself.

Works featured in the exhibition, including site-specific works, raise questions about diversity, inequality, poverty, marginalization, ownership, and appropriation while leaving agency in the hands of viewers as to how they will embrace these issues. Will the experience with the works in this exhibition become yet another sensation, one of perhaps millions encountered on a daily basis, or will we allow his work to become something that needles us, guiding us toward the deep and empathetic connection possible when we simply see one another?

The possibilities are as varied as the readers of Benning’s art. If we could comprehend and contain all these interpretations, then we might be able to find a solution to this 21st-century isolationist condition, that is, togetherness.

Excerpts from the text by Constanza Medina, Curatorial Research Associate, and Abaseh Mirvali.

Generous support provided by Paseo Nuevo Shops & Restaurants, August Ridge Winery, MCASB Board of Trustees, and MCASB Visionaries.

Special thanks to the Santa Barbara Center for Art, Science and Technology (SBCAST) and Santa Barbara Public Library. Additional thanks to neugerriemschneider, Berlin, Germany and O-Town House, Los Angeles, USA.

About the Artist
James Benning 
(b.1942, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA) lives and works in Val Verde, California, USA. Benning is a major figure of American cinema. In the late 1960s, he directed his first short films in the experimental-cinema tradition, retaining its formal rigor and taste for conceptual constraints while pioneering the notion of “figurative narrative.” His films rest on an experience of time and perception and its relationship to space. They also approach the notion of place from autobiographical, cultural, political, and historical viewpoints. In 2014, his film, 13 Lakes, was added to the National Film Registry. Benning has been teaching at the California Institute of the Arts since 1987.

About the Curator
Abaseh Mirvali
is the Executive Director, Chief Curator, and CEO at the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara, in Santa Barbara, California, USA. Previously she worked as an internationally-recognized independent contemporary art and architecture curator and project producer with a career-long commitment to civic engagement and public service through innovative collaborations between contemporary art initiatives and the community at large. Mirvali is the author of the concept and program development of the 2013 edition of The Biennial of the Americas, where she served as CEO, Executive Director, and Comisaria from 2011 to 2013. Between 2005 and 2009, Mirvali was the Executive Director of the Colección/Fundación Jumex Arte Contemporáneo, where she consolidated and developed one of the most distinguished collections of contemporary art for a private institution in Latin America.

Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara (MCASB)
is a non-profit, non-collecting museum dedicated to the exhibition, education, and cultivation of the art of our time. Formerly Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum (CAF), MCASB is the premier venue for contemporary art between Los Angeles and San Francisco. MCASB is located at the Paseo Nuevo Upper Arts Terrace in downtown Santa Barbara, California.

Hours: Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 11am–5pm
Thursday 11am–8pm
Sunday 12pm–5pm

T +1 805 966 5373
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Visit for more exhibition-related events and screenings.

Media contact:
Lauren Sharp
T +1 805 966 5373 x108
communications [​at​]

Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara
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Quilts, Cigarettes & Dirt (Portraits of America)
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