Updated: Oct 17, 2018
To have emerged from a past that no longer exists is the legacy, and perhaps the tragedy, of those who live long enough to alter and reconstitute their identity. For Pat Benincasa, the obsolescence of the Industrial Era in American history held not only dreams in its wake, but lives. Her work encompasses the structures, the towns and cities, the greater American landscape around them, and the specific if frequently forgotten accomplishments of figures from this world. She has taken cultural possession of the past. Within its fabric hides a rich palimpsest where memory and the imagination meet. She excavates and celebrates the details that make up this history. Benincasa’s oeuvre encompasses three distinct bodies of work. One is devoted to the industrial structures; the second to the streets and avenues of Rust Belt cities, that were known for specific industrial products, and became communities; and for her newest project, “Women At The Wheel,” a series of history markers commemorating the lives and accomplishments of many forgotten or little known pioneers in industry and women’s rights. She has recently completed a film exploring each of her female heroes, that in it comprises a related body of work extending her authority. In consideration of the history of place, one cannot do a greater justice than to attend to the structures and environments that have housed the engines of industry. Though these places lack the tenderness of homes in neighborhoods, they do not fail but to impress upon us the force of endeavor. In their obsolescence, they take on a grandeur that marks them not as mere detritus, but as historical ruins. Unlike many comparable structures possessed of symbolic identities, they occupy space that still may have some hope of being revitalized, if economic prosperity returns to the cities of Detroit, Flint, or Akron. Benincasa’s extended focus upon these structures and the environment which they characterized pays tribute to the importance of history, and though some may assume they also contribute to ruin porn, such attitudes do nothing to address either the questions of history or the need for change. Beninacasa does both. Though it may prove difficult for Americans to admit that these are in fact ruins, that even within our short national history, that some portion of the whole has reached a point beyond which it could not go.
Though it’s central to Benincasa’s work, the demise and struggles of the areas she depicts are in themselves a worthy and encompassing discussion. Yet it’s her own images and models for this historical situation that matter, not arguments surrounding them. Her devotion to the depiction of such scenes has led her circuitously to address not only the metaphoric and impressionistic parables, but also the relational civic and social structures, and the lives, many of them storied, that emerged from or correlated to the automotive industry and just as easily folded into it and were, for a time, forgotten. Benincasa places these stories back into our hands.
Benincasa’s Sheet Metal Paintings have a prosaic, even pragmatic appearance, because they take their inspiration from and even sample maps of certain cities that inhabit the imagination of the culture of industry, places that had a time and then lost it. Some are being slowly reborn while others have suffered further calamities: Akron and Youngstown (Ohio), Detroit and Flint (Michigan), Gary (Indiana), and Hamilton, Ontario in Canada, near Toronto. Real places contain complexities of construction that include all of the machines needed to make the products that drive an economy. Cars, tires, machine parts, the steel itself needed to create skyscrapers and railroad tracks, all of these were not only central to the region of the Rust Belt but were their very reason for existing in the first place. Cities founded by corporations, with whole communities of individuals and families both equally dependent upon the dictates of the bottom line, living not so much in a Democracy as in a shadow version of one. Then, with the decline of these industries came the destruction of the social and moral fiber of these persons and communities. Benincasa is likewise influenced by the variety of her formal concerns as they respond, periodically over time when the demands of a specific series or project necessitate, and focus into one genre of imagery, constructions, or the like. Her early Sheet Metal Paintings depicted the outward appearances of the factories, and she went where she needed to in order to find imagery commanding aesthetic attention. In many cases these areas were cordoned off, due to being dangerously contaminated since the immediate shutdowns of the factories left them derelict and decayed. These were never intended to be hospitable environments beyond their use to industry. Yet Benincasa reveres such places, and brings her reverence into the realms of both the sensory and the sublime.
The sorts of spaces that exist in her works are unlike any other social context. We are accustomed to looking upon photographs of such scenes, but paintings and other creative forms of expression are more rare. Few artists possess the courage to deal directly with this subject matter instead of transforming it into a symbolic abstraction that reflects more conceptual and sometimes grandiose forms. Since 2011, Benincasa has pursued an expansive view—a visual history—of these symbolically charged sites. They range back and forth from nearly photorealist depictions of industrial settings such as Ore Yard Pennsylvania (2013) and Iron Sky (2014), in which we are able to view the decrepit factories from the inside out, with nothing left of them but pipes, ducts, and the muted metal forms that previously supported walls and ceilings. Everything else has been stripped away or has decayed over time, filled with sky and air. To look upon these scenes cannot be done without a sort of reverence, for here are the huge spaces and some still standing remnants of the furnaces that helped build and protect America. Some of these are transformed with the addition of sculptural elements extending the realism of the settings. For Lackawanna Ore Bridge (2015) and Republic Steel (2016), Benincasa constructed the metal bridges and trestles that were the actual connections between sites of transfer and ones of loading and unloading of raw materials entering the factory environment. Their magnified presence allows viewers to more consequently feel as if they are face to face with the forms, alternately practical, visceral, and spectral, that intersects between work and dreams. Alternately, she also creates traditional paintings that evoke the furnace of heat and energy that a factory really is in its most profound, productive moments. River Rouge (2013-14) presents eight small vignettes of exterior factory scenes that alternate between cool blue and a flurry of steam and heat rising from the metal ‘skin’ of the factory animal. Their small scale presents a cacophony of organ like forms that could be any sort of mysterious beast, while their variety point at how multifaceted the scene is when walking around one of them, how each contains secret corners and vast canyons of space. For despite their pure use value, these mass objects are proof of the imagination of a society leaning into its future. At the time when these factories were first made, they represented the pinnacle of industrial accomplishment. In Burning Sky Blast Furnace (2015) we are presented with the full frontal face of a massive factory, the sky red with fumes, or perhaps the setting sun reflecting the metallic tones of the heated interior where steel and cars were being continually produced.
Benincasa’s most recent project has been “Women At The Wheel,” a series of paintings of heroic women who have held positions in the automotive world, some of them supporting other women in areas of social justice. They include Joan Newton Cuneo (2014), who was the first-ever female racecar driver, who raced against and beat many of her male contemporaries, and set several national speed records, until they appealed to the major sponsor of auto farces, AAA, who had “all women” barred from the sport. Her portrait shows a stern and dedicated countenance with her hands gripping a steering wheel, her racing uniform decorated with the medals of her accomplishments. Another is of Mary Andersen (2014), who actually designed and held the original patent for windshield wipers, but though she took them to every car manufacturer, she was repeatedly told that they had no commercial value. Benincasa has created a film to further explicate and dramatize the epitomies symbolized by each case. Its subsequent documentary narration accompanied by examples of the works in succession is an exemplary model for the genre of cultural rediscovery.
Family and community are the real identifiers of place and not industry—no matter what the history books would have us think. Though this context is not outwardly evident, it is a core element of her practice. The artist is not merely judged by what she makes, but also and most importantly why. No matter how far the artist may go to distance her from the traditional roles, they are imbued in her identity by their ability to impose a moral self-identification that few other ideas will ever replace. Pat Benincasa is an artist of the sort one rarely encounters these days: a dreamer who is also a builder and a pragmatist. She brings to her creative pursuit identifications and drives that have been behind societal and historical change since the founding of The United States of America. The pioneer is someone who not only enters new territory, but who reinvigorates old ideas and experiences. Its spirit remains strong within those who have seen loss, and whose territories are to be renewed from the inside. She is a maker, but a large part of her was already produced in the factory of family, the community of values that have been translated and transformed into art.