The tower is what pulls me into the Linda Schwartz Gallery at the edge of downtown on West Fourth Street. It's a titanic blur of blues, greens and reds that tickles the top of the gallery's 12-foot ceilings. A closer examination reveals the tower's true identity. Cincinnati-based sculptor Keith Benjamin sliced cereal and cracker boxes to use as the planks for his towering tribute to consumer babble. Looking closely, you can make out the features of cartoon elves Snap, Crackle and Pop. There's also the scrabbled text of recognizable brand names: Rice Krispies, Apple Jacks, Kix and Cocoa Krispies. Two cardboard lounge chairs rest on the tower's top platform. The chairs are a private joke reserved for gallery visitors willing to view the sculpture from a distance.
"I wanted the piece to be a little frustrating," Benjamin says, leading me through the gallery exhibition. "I have become more aware of staircases now."
Benjamin's tower, "Rise and Shine," is an engineering marvel of everyday simplicity and artistic elegance. Earlier this year, he built the tower as separate seven-foot sections in the basement studio of the West side home he shares with his wife and two young children. He spent months cutting the boxes into pieces worthy of construction. Glue holds everything together.
Benjamin's efforts paid off handsomely. "Rise and Shine" is the highlight of his realist exhibition, Hot and Cold, at the Linda Schwartz Gallery.
For visitors unfamiliar with his work, Hot and Cold is a stunning introduction to his naturalistic method of sculpture. More importantly, the show is also a welcome celebration of an under-recognized local artist. (See Jane Durrell's review of Benjamin's show on page 53.)
Last year, I met Benjamin at his East Price Hill gallery, the Warsaw Project Space. It's a raw exhibition room he opened with a November 1998 solo show of his work. Since then, he's offered the space to other local artists who have been ignored by Cincinnati's retail galleries.
Benjamin knows how difficult it is to get chancy artwork seen by the public. Now, Hot and Cold finally gives him his share of the Cincinnati spotlight.
There's a spirit of childlike playfulness in Benjamin's sculptures. His use of found objects gives the artwork a down-to-earth feeling. The impression is that these sculptures accurately reflect his own low-key personality.
Benjamin shapes a year's worth of newspapers into a snowman-like figure, "Accumulated Quiet." Three large spheres are made from layers of newspapers he bound tightly with packing tape. The fading newsprint gives the paper snowman a yellowish glow. But a layer of Q-Tips cover the snowman with a field of blue plastic rods and white cotton swabs. It's the one static element in a sculpture meant to age and eventually deteriorate.
Curbside recycling bins provide the inspiration for Benjamin's four other pieces in the show. Recycled microwave popcorn boxes and Fruit Roll-Up cartons are molded into a pair of cereal bowls he calls "Hot and Cold." A coating of Elmer's Glue gives the bowls a luminescent sheen.
Strips of brown paper bags and masking tape are woven into a hat and pair of socks titled "Gear." Near the gallery's front door, paper lunch sacks are taped together to form a large pair of pants he simply calls "Tan Pants IV." Yellow self-adhering notes are attached to the paper pants like some Levi's tag. The comical idea is that paper can be used as clothing if necessary.
Benjamin says "Tan Pants IV" is a jokey reference to his day-job uniform as an office equipment delivery man. Like many local artists, he needs to earn a regular paycheck, so he delivers office furniture and teaches sculpture at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.
Toward the back of the gallery, the shell of a stove represents "Nite Lite," the only work Benjamin has exhibited before. He ground the enamel off an old stove and drilled a series of holes, forming a star-like pattern in the metal. Clamp lights are attached to the four spaces that used to hold the burners. Yellow balloons fill the oven.
The result is a glowing jewel of tarnished steel. In a room filled with paper and cardboard sculptures, "Nite Lite" is a pleasant burst of silvery metal.
Together, the six sculptures in Hot and Cold say a lot about Benjamin's unassuming style, blue-collar work ethic and preference for found materials. The show is quiet and rewarding. Downtown might not be all that far from Benjamin's little-known gallery, but viewing Hot and Cold feels like he's come a very long way.