The Art of Getting It Together

Jesse Benson, Packaging, 2003/2023. Ephemera from all projects completed in grad school, vacuum-formed plastic, plexiglass, silkscreen on board. Installation dimensions variable, individual dimensions 21 x 28.8 x 3 in. Photo by Jeff McLane. Courtesy As-Is LA.

In Organizer, Jesse Benson’s first solo gallery show since 2017, the Los Angeles artist unpacks the “dialectic of order and chaos” by introducing heterogeneity to organizing systems.

Upon entering Gallery, one encounters Packaging (2003/2023) in the foyer. The installation, re-exhibited 20 years after its conception, hearkens back to Duchamp’s valises. While the French artist’s portable collection addresses art’s troubled aura and (ir)reproducibility, Benson’s plexiglass storage units are significantly less mobile and prelude the show’s modular geometry. In the main gallery, 70 red ink pens are meticulously aligned on the floor. An abundance of rectangular and linear motifs imbue the room with modernity’s famous cleanliness. From the metallic hinge on the door (Survival Sculpture 5) to the first-aid kit box (Survival Sculpture 1), Benson seems to have organized the artworks according to the pragmatic intuition of architectural localism. Basically, one could claim that everything looks highly regulated. However, an ironic question quickly overrides this initial impression of order: Does the organizer’s intervention reduce entropy?

Jesse Benson, Survival Sculpture 5 (Sycophant), 2023. Stained rood and metal side-table, hinges. Photo by Jeff McLane. Courtesy As-Is LA.
Jesse Benson, Arrival/Departure Painting 1 (Ski Trip Tahoe ’95, Baltic Cruise ’08), 2023. Oil and gesso on panel in aluminum frame. 34 x 22 in. Photo by Jeff McLane. Courtesy As-Is LA.

The exhibition strikes me more like a parody of order rather than a self-aware display of compliance. In Arrival/Departure Painting, an outfit planner logs every item of clothing in such excruciating detail. Stripes, animal prints, and embroidery are all meticulously drawn by hand to the point where the spread almost looks like a magazine mood board. Identified by Tom Jimmerson as a manifestation of “the neoliberal dream of efficiency maximization,” this painting reveals that the act of organizing is somewhat performative. It reminds me of the “10 Packing Hacks” videos on YouTube, bestsellers like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and boxes from Muji or IKEA. The list goes on. For most people who hoard at least a little, organization is regarded as an antidote to the ills of capitalist overabundance. With time, organization as a concept becomes a cultural and material merchandise with its own set of anxieties and morals attached. By anxiety, I mean, you know, the compulsion to tuck away the Swiffer mop that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere discreetly in a tiny NYC apartment.

Sometimes the apparatus of order takes center stage. The show’s press release is accompanied by an image of a PalmPilot as a nostalgic symbol of efficiency. In Survival Sculpture 4 (Old Money), a tilted grandfather clock case is mounted on a bespoke pedestal. It is uncannily self-referential and upholds independence from its mechanical timekeeping counterpart. Number 2, 5, 6, and 8 from the Compartmentalization series respectively depict a pavilion, a calendar, Microsoft Windows, and a Trapper Keeper binder, all of which imply some form of system in place. The viewer’s attention is drawn to the façade or the user interface of these productivity tools—especially the funky, psychedelic design on the Trapper Keeper binder. If the viewer has already accepted organizing as a spectacle up to this point, these tools are the main characters to watch out for.

Installation view of Jesse Benson: Organizer. Top (left to right): Compartmentalization Painting 1 (Past and Future Failures), Compartmentalization Painting 4 (Desert Landscape), Compartmentalization Painting 1 (Grafter), Compartmentalization Painting 2 (Pavilion); 2023, oil and gesso on panel in aluminum frame, 8.5 x 11 in. Bottom: Segue Painting 3, 2023, oil and gesso on architectural trim, 4 x 48 in. Photo by Jeff McLane. Courtesy As-Is LA.

Alternatively, the word “organization” also reads as institution or establishment. Some paintings from the Compartmentalization series depict the Irvine twin towers, the Alcatraz Island, and crowds of hand-raising journalists. They prompt an ominous rethinking of how penal, corporate, and mediatic systems exert power during times of crisis. In attempts to instigate order, these entities can often haunt and silence. In the Delicacy series, the bandage motif adds a touch of psychological intimacy and vulnerability to the mix. The two individual bandages in Delicacy Painting 2 (Separation) sit in divided color blocks, deep in thought, as if a visual representation of putting different emotions in their place.

And then there is putting art together—a labor of love. The show’s title refers to Benson as an art organizer and cheekily rubs on ideas of stewardship, community-building, and curation at large. Indeed, the configuration of the paintings is rather unique. A large sheet of black metal cutout (Survival Sculpture 6) is prominently displayed close to the ceiling, almost like a cornice template or a picture rail. Further down at the midsection of the wall, 13 rectangular paintings are visually divided into two groups despite being sold individually. They are placed right above the four Segue Paintings executed on architectural trims that allude to chair rails. I was surprised to learn that there are indeed four, not two, trim paintings—two on each side with virtually no space in between. It is as if Benson is training our eyes to grow accustomed to the oddities that mental habits can cause us to neglect in the process of art-viewing.

How, then, can organization be a coherent and order-giving concept, with all of this inherent entropy? Jesse Benson’s semantic and semiotic scrutiny of organization encourages us to cast a skeptical gaze on whether order can realistically exist as the antithesis of chaos. This show—humorous, intelligent, and I suspect just a little dark—offers a plot twist on what it means to “get it together.”

Installation view of Jesse Benson: Organizer. Photo by Jeff McLane. Courtesy As-Is LA.

Jesse Benson: Organizer is on view until September 23rd, 2023 at Gallery, Los Angeles.

About the writer: Xuezhu Jenny Wang is a multilingual translator and content creator. In addition to writing about postwar and contemporary visual culture, she is currently working on a research project that focuses on mid-century interior design and mechanization.