Artist Jana Benitez on art, emotion and connection in the human experience
Born and raised in New York City, Filipino-American artist Jana Benitez seeks avenues of exploring intangible concepts and emotions ever-present in the human experience. She currently alternates her time working in her hometown of NYC, Maine and Manila. Her bold and ebullient paintings have appeared in public and private collections, such as the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, the Pataka Art + Museum in New Zealand and Ayala Museum and St. Luke’s Hospital in the Philippines.
Four of Benitez’s works will be displayed at Pearl Lam Galleries this week as part of Art Basel Hong Kong 2022. Benitez uses gestural painting to tease out nuances and bring freshness to ancient traditions like Buddhism, Daoism and Tantra. Gestural painting involves splashing and applying paint to canvas with abstract intuition rather than intent. This embodied practice helps Benitez connect to her inner awareness.
TMS recently caught up with Benitez to discuss her work and methodology. Here’s what she had to say.
Art Basel in Hong Kong 2022
Jana Benitez has participated in Art Basel Hong Kong for the past few years. And, even in these unprecedented times, she expresses gratitude for art and the conversation it creates.
“I think [Art Basel] is always a reflection of the pulse of where people are at,” says Benitez. “I think during the last few years, in particular, the function of these gatherings and of art has maybe changed in tenor for obvious reasons.
“We’re all experiencing the pandemic in different ways, and it’s experienced very differently in different settings depending on what country you’re in and what the restrictions are and what the vibe is,” says Benitez. “And so I think that international gatherings for art remind us that the dialogue is still alive, and we’re still communing, and it’s exciting that we’re still able to do this.”
Two of Benitez’s gestural paintings will appear in Art Basel’s Pearl Lam exhibition – one entitled “Sappho” and the other “Big Energy.” The other two are part of a visceral and tender project based on archival imagery from the early 20th century.
Dreamland Coney Island and reconciliation
Benitez describes “Dreamland Coney Island, 1905” as a historical work centering Ho’oponopono, a Hawaiian reconciliation system, and Tonglen, a Tibetan breathing practice, to reframe past trauma. She used “Filipino Villages,” archival images from 1904-1905 when the US trafficked Indigenous peoples to display in human zoos.
“It’s quite a delicate topic because it’s very current,” says Benitez. “It’s in flux, and it’s really what’s happening right now. It’s just the tip of the iceberg … In Coney Island, New York, of a group of Filipinos that were brought first to St. Louis at the state fair. So after the Louisiana Purchase, there was a World Fair, and 1,100 Filipinos were brought in from the Philippines to perform in what has been described as human zoos. And this happened in Chicago and then in Coney Island.
“I’m using this specific historical moment with specific historical images as a prototype for an experiment to apply the Tonglen practice and also Ho’oponopono, which is a Hawaiian reconciliation system that is based upon the idea that what is outside of us is a reflection of what is inside of us,” says Benitez. “It’s a worldview that encourages a sense of agency and connection.”
She goes on to mention the Buddha’s parable of the poisoned arrow to explain this reconciliation process. A man is struck by a poisoned arrow. Rather than removing the arrow from his body and tending to his wound, he begins to ask questions. He focuses on the metaphysical rather than the practical.
“He’s like, ‘Who shot this arrow? Where did it come from? What is it made out of? Is it wood? What kind of feathers are these?’ Just these endless array of questions,” explains Benitez.
The point of the parable is to focus on practicality rather than focusing on how it happened, who did it, why they did it, etc. Treat the wound before you question its circumstances. Treat generational trauma before you philosophize about its causes.
Grounding artistic practice in the simple things
Could our obsession with the theoretical be draining important traditions of their meanings? Perhaps our constant pursuit of newness drowns out the complexities of simple ideas. Gestural painting provides a medium to ground those ideas and experience them anew.
“In conversations about art, I try to avoid the ‘isms,’ because when you touch one of these big canons of thought, there’s a tendency to forget the richness of what that word means,” says Benitez. “There is a tendency in our culture and also our university institutions to push toward covering more ground or having extended cultural capital – having new ideas.
“But pointing at these much older lineages is a way of recognizing that the simplest of ideas can be so vast as a lived experience,” says Benitez. “Like things that are on bumper stickers that we’re tired of hearing, but as intellectual ideas can still be just entirely new and fresh, like a flower. We’re never tired of picking up a flower and just seeing this magical thing. We tire of that metaphor, but the actual experience is new. And so I think that gestural painting has a capacity to relate to the moment.”
Be on the lookout for upcoming projects from Benitez and Pearl Lam Galleries in the late summer of 2022. Art Basel in Hong Kong 2022 opens for private preview on May 25 and public viewing runs May 28-29 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre at 1 Harbour Road, Wanchai.