Artists on Coping: Paul Behnke

During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.

Paul Behnke and Gulley in his studio in Lambertville, NJ. Photo courtesy of Robin Stout.

Paul Behnke’s painting comingles references from pop culture, religion, and imagery associated with mysticism and the occult with an abstracted interplay of pure color and open and closed spaces and forms that become further complicated by realistic collaged references. His works ultimately relate to the intersection of pop culture and spirituality and how sacred beliefs become co-opted in a disconnected, consumptive society. Behnke’s work has been exhibited in the United States and internationally. He has edited Structure and Imagery art blog since 2011 and was the co-director of Stout Projects in Brooklyn. Behnke currently lives and works in Lambertville, NJ.

AS: How are you coping?

PB: I think the hardest thing to cope with is just the general and pervasive feeling of anxiety. The air seems thick with it and it underlies every outing and interaction. It makes us paranoid and at times afraid of strangers. I seldom leave the house and even an infrequent trip to the grocery store can feel uneasy and threatening. Large sections of shelving are bare and the first time I went in I didn’t notice the multi colored arrows and lines on the floor so I often went against the flow and got a lot of exasperated, annoyed looks before a man finally pointed them out to me. Everyone wears masks, hoods and gloves but it’s difficult to stay six feet away from fellow shoppers in a grocery aisle. I cope by trying to mitigate the stressors however I can. I try to shop as early as possible and only go when we absolutely need things. Rightly, of course, all of the parks and the canal path that runs along the Delaware River are closed so my wife and I go for very early dog walks.

In 2012 we studied Transcendental Meditation and keeping up with my practice goes a long way towards alleviating stress and the accompanying insomnia and anxiety dreams. I’ve started to keep a dream journal in hopes of jotting down interesting imagery or moods that could be useful later on in my painting. I haven’t been very good about exercising but if I can even get in a half an hour a day it seems to help my mood. A good diet also helps. Just before last Christmas we switched to a plant based diet that promotes feeling good in general and decreases inflammation, aches and pains, etc. Every article says that sticking to a routine, waking and going to bed and eating meals at the same time everyday helps to cope with this quarantine but I haven’t been able to manage this yet.

The Master’s Hands, 2020, Acrylic, spray paint and collage on canvas, 64 x 60 inches, courtesy of the artist.

AS: Have you had a show or other creative opportunities canceled?

PB: I didn’t have any exhibits planned, however, I am currently scheduled to attend the Farm Studio residency in Rajasthan, India in January of 2021 and I’m not feeling optimistic that things will be up and going by then. I was really looking forward to visiting India again. When I was a kid my mom introduced me to books on reincarnation, yoga, and various gurus so the religious and mythic symbols have been an important part of my visual lexicon for some time. You can imagine my eagerness to have a chance to study it further where it originated.

My heart also goes out to all of my friends and acquaintances who had worked so hard to get ready for shows that had to be postponed or canceled and to the galleries themselves. The gallery owners that I know in Bushwick and New York all sacrifice a great deal of energy and money to do what they do and I’m sure a lot of the spaces won’t make it through this. I’m not sure what new strategies they and the artists will come up with to show, share and sell work but I do know that seeing a work online tells you almost nothing about it. We all know that an object has to be experienced “in the flesh” to really engage with it, to measure your body against it and to take in its nuances. So any model that moves forward based largely on consultants and online viewing rooms or Instagram doesn’t excite me much.

The only bright effect I see now (for Art and the gallery spaces) is the diminishment of art fairs. The saving grace though, and what continues to give me hope is that artists, gallerists, and curators are infinitely inventive and love and support their communities. That love and support is what drew me to Bushwick years ago and I know we will find a way to see and share objects and facilitate dialog and see our communities blossom again.

Ezekiel’s Vision, 2020, Acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 48 x 50 inches, courtesy of the artist.

AS: Has your routine changed?

PB: In many ways my routine has changed for the better. My wife is working from home so there is no rush to commute in the mornings. Most mornings now, we wake up very early to walk our dogs before many people are out and about. If we skip the walks we spend mornings in bed having coffee and sharing excerpts of what we’ve been reading or dreaming about and journaling. After a couple of hours we get up, have breakfast and start the day. For my wife that means firing up the computer and participating in an endless chain of conference calls and zoom meetings. And for me it means getting into the studio and getting to work there.

I have actually gotten much more work done since we self quarantined. Before, I think a lot of my mental energy was sapped by the feeling that I always should be somewhere attending an opening, supporting friends, networking or taking advantage of museum shows and panel discussions. Now those things aren’t possible so time and mental and physical energy that would normally be put into that is channeled into my own painting. And painters like to paint.

After the studio day I cook dinner and watch something or listen to a podcast while Robin works on her writing. I think that the new, slower pace allows me to be present in the moment in ways that I rarely was before. One of the first things we did when our lockdown started was to cancel cable TV. Lately my attention and appetite have been drawn to classics and since arts organizations have been streaming movies, plays, operas, and poetry readings there have been so many options available. I also joined audible and, in the studio, I am listening to some of the literary classics that I only pretended to read in high school.

Sacred Security, 2020, Acrylic, spray paint and collage on canvas, 50 x 48 inches, courtesy of the artist.

AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?

PB: The anxiety of the moment is exacerbated by the lack of confidence our political leaders inspire. I feel like, in general, as a society we’ve really fucked up. We’ve put ourselves in this position where we desperately need an honest, intelligent, and caring government and both sides of the political aisle have given us the opposite of that or more accurately, we’ve given it to ourselves.

I also feel that we as a whole are being put to the test. Previous generations faced war, deprivation and pandemics and somehow managed to pull themselves through. This is the first time my generation has experienced a commandeering of our lives by forces we can’t control and so far we haven’t fared very well. We have experienced living through indefinite war but largely, only a segment of the population has had to take on that responsibility. The only other event that comes close is maybe 9/11, but again, only a small portion of the country had to endure that. This pandemic and our response to it have taken control of a generation’s life. We are a generation of Americans used to iPhones, and conveniences and are not good at deprivation and sacrifice. But then I think that generations of the past were probably criticized in the same way at the time. They persevered and flourished and I think we will too.

Space Angel, 2020, Acrylic, spray paint and collage on canvas, 54 x 48 inches, courtesy of the artist.

AS: What matters most right now?

PB: That family and friends stay safe and healthy and in good spirits. That’s all I can think of that matters at the moment.

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

PB: I think it’s uncertain and scary but we’ll get to a hopeful place.

Monument to Icarus at Night, 2020, Acrylic, spray paint and collage on canvas, 48 x 50 inches, courtesy of the artist.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: