OLIVIA NORTEN ‘25 (SHE/HER)
“Being an artist is a performance, creating is a performance, and most of the time no one is there to see it.”Paul Stephen Benjamin
This sentiment is at the core of the newest art exhibition on display in the Van Every/Smith galleries in the Belk Visual Arts Center. Paul Stephen Benjamin, an Atlanta-based visual artist, created his newest collection of works as an internal exploration of what Blackness means to the senses: what it looks like, sounds like, and how it feels to those who experience it. His exhibition, Black Form, utilizes a variety of mediums to reflect how Benjamin has meditated on the meaning of Blackness within himself and how its multifacetedness can be captured and displayed.
His artist talk on the evening of March 10th opened with an unplanned performance within the piece “Black Gold,” housed in the side room of the main gallery. This piece featured an arrangement of black lights on the wall, shining down on a floor covered in broken shards of tempered glass. Benjamin, using only a straw broom, spent many minutes silently and carefully sweeping the glass, taking obvious special care to make sure that every part of the piece was affected. When asked about the significance of this action, Benjamin explained how “there is beauty in labor” and that the detailed upkeep of his piece allows him to enter a very intense and focused creative headspace. Additionally, his sole presence in a space that was off-limits to all other visitors resonated as an act of reclamation within a piece focused on persisting barriers.
The theme of performance and perception continued through the other works present in the exhibition, most notably in the central auditory piece “Sonata in Absolute Black: All the Black Keys.” The piece consisted of 36 flat screen TVs, each displaying an individual looped video of Benjamin frantically playing one of the black keys on a piano. Within this work, Benjamin sought to explore the question of what the color black could sound like while also incorporating elements of his meditative daily routines. Benjamin shared stories of his habits that developed during the COVID-19 pandemic that inspired him to create a work every day. The main foyer of the gallery hall had the words “black is beautiful” covering the walls in reference to Benjamin’s daily meditative practice of spending several hours typing those same words repetitively on a typewriter. Benjamin stated that this practice helps him to “create at least one new work a day” to not only stimulate his artistic process, but also to celebrate his Blackness in an extremely personal way.
As a viewer, it was obvious that Black Form is an exhibition centered around growth, curiosity, and joy within oneself. The frequent use of text displaying positive messaging around the black experience, especially within the piece “Black Haiku,” seemed to capture how the use of affirmations and positive, repetitive self-talk can transform how a person of color can come to understand and love their unique experience. Powerful and thoughtful pieces such as “Black Flag #1” and the collection of different versions of the color black confronted the complicated nature of identity and further highlighted how joy can persist amid struggle. Benjamin’s exhibition is a triumphant exploration of identity and there is no doubt that it has already cemented a very important place within the legacy of the Van Every/Smith galleries at Davidson.
Olivia Norten ‘25 (she/her) is an intended psychology major from Rochester, NY. Olivia can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.