“I want to be free to try things that don’t make sense yet.”
Sadie Benning’s career began at 15, when they received a Fisher-Price PXL 2000 toy video camera from their father for Christmas. Benning remembers, “I thought, ‘This is a piece of shit. It’s black-and-white. It’s for kids.’ He’d told me I was getting this surprise. I was expecting a camcorder.”
Reminiscent of journal entries and filmed mostly in their bedroom, the videos Benning created with the PXL 2000 are a window into their teenage world in Milwaukee. The artist acknowledges, “I got started partly because I needed different images and I never wanted to wait for someone to do them for me.” Suddenly, Benning became a pioneer of a new and rapidly popularizing genre of film: Pixelvision, as the videos were coined for their flat, pixelated quality. In Jollies (1990), by describing past sexual and romantic experiences, Benning recounts the path that led them to realize, “I was as queer as can be.” Despite the attention that these movies received, the works were developed at a time, as Benning now reflects, before they fully understood their transgender, nonbinary identity.
Benning eventually began to work in other mediums, embracing the immediacy of tactile materials as an alternative to the long process of filming and editing video. Benning explains that a “painting might not literally have the ability to talk like a film...yet it still has something to say.” They incorporate sculptural elements into their paintings; often, wood is cut into pieces, coated with colored resin, sanded, then fit back together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Benning attributes this experimental process to a lack of formal training as a painter, explaining, “The history of painting is heavy with arguments, and as much as I am interested in knowing about them conceptually, I don't want to feel oppressed in the studio. I want to be free to try things that don’t make sense yet. I put materials together that maybe shouldn’t be and don’t follow hierarchies.”
Benning takes this same approach to Shared Eye (2016); with the addition of found photographs, toys, and shelves, the work has moved even further from traditional painting. Though the work is inspired by things that bother the artist—like the current political climate and how rampant sexism, racism, xenophobia, white supremacy, and capitalism affect the unconscious—Benning also wants audiences to bring their own interpretation to it, noting that there are “infinite ways of looking at the piece.”
Hannah Traore, Twelve-Month Intern, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2019