A tuning fork is a small metal instrument that when struck vibrates at a frequency which resonates with innate frequencies of things in the world. I often refer to a tuning fork to explain how sometimes I feel a sense of resonance that pre-exists analysis, attuned equally to what I understand and can’t possibly, always first an index of pure pleasure, a density, a wave. A friend called it affinity, this resonance that does not draw things closer but rather attunes to what is radiant. I like this idea of affinity as intimacy at a distance—a sort of friendship, let’s say, in which what can be known is known innately and what can never be known remains opaque, with room between sensing and knowing for things to disappear and reappear, explaining, at least in part, how affinity often takes form as constellation, can transcend without collapsing near and far.
Affinity is also what the artist Julie Ault, in the book Two Cabins (2011), calls the artist James Benning’s feeling for the transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau. Attunement is how she describes Thoreau’s own feeling for the natural world, and for his cabin at Walden Pond, which Benning replicated, along with the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s, in meticulous detail. Ault writes that Benning’s own tuning fork moment occurred when he returned to Thoreau’s Walden after several years teaching a class called “Looking and Listening,” and read this passage, “No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking at what is to be seen?”
I am thinking about affinity—as a form of friendship, a constellation, the discipline of looking at what is to be seen (what Ault calls Benning’s “looking as method, form, and subject”)—while I’m viewing, or visiting, “Down the Rabbit Hole: JB in JT,” an exhibition by Benning arranged by Ault and artist Martin Beck, with Scott Cameron Weaver of O-Town House. The exhibition is staged in and around Ault and Beck’s home in Joshua Tree, and at O-Town House, the way most things are at at the moment, which is to say @. It consists of some 25 works Benning has made for, given to, or traded with, Ault and Beck, or that he made at their home or somehow with them, since 2004: books, such as Two Cabins, photographs, paintings, artefacts, each photographed at close range on Ault and Beck’s walls and shelves, in cabinets and outside, with anecdotal captions written by the four friends. Ault too used this method to document works in her 2013 show, Macho Man Tell it to My Heart, mostly purchased from, or given to her by, friends, as did Benning for his 2018 show, 31 Friends, at O-Town House.
Looking into Ault and Beck’s home from my home in central London, I see Benning, photographed on December 25, 2011, seated at a table with his back turned to me, facing a view of desert rocks. Below, in his introductory text, Weaver writes that the idea for the exhibition “was hatched last Christmas, a time when the gang usually descends on Joshua Tree for some quality time,” then crystallized when the friends gathered in “JT” for lockdown and found that an online format answered the question of how to manage exhibition visitors in Ault and Beck’s home.
Fittingly, the images stage a proximity, an intimacy, that is at once extreme — in the placement of works among filing trays and fruit bowls, in the waxing or waning dust of desert light — and impossible, in a time when both proximity and distance are painfully fraught. But what I suppose I’m trying to say about resonance, about affinity, about the logic of showing and telling that Benning and friends employ, is that it affirms the possibility of a mode, a method, a form of life and work in which neither are negated and both are true. This is how we know each other, essentially, the colloquial way one might contextualize an old friend for a new, historicizing a shared present in which This is how we may come to know each other is implicit. To observe, which is to say imagine, the particular friendship of two sugar pinecones with an outdoor bench, or a pink-rimmed bowl with After Noland (smiling) , Benning’s silkscreened image of the Manson Family’s Ruth Ann Moorehouse, with Beck’s caption, “At first, I wasn’t sure why James thought I should have [it],” or a mint-green floor and red shag carpet with After Warhol (smiling), 2014, with Ault’s remark, “I love this sexy exuberant photograph of Andy Warhol, grabbing Parker Tyler’s crotch,” is to savour such pleasures of presence and potential.
And Noland and Moorehouse and Warhol remind me that these same strategies of recollection and looking and friendship, applied in“Down the Rabbit Hole” to shared histories of life and work, have been applied by the friends to many others: Thoreau and Kaczynski, Henry Darger, Chris Burden, Marie Menken, Bill Traylor, Vanessa Basilio, a young artist and student with whom Benning made a trade, the 31 friends of 31 Friends, and more. Benning has called it “counterpoint”, this coexistence of complement and contrast, which he says, “crosses the wires between good and bad.”
Resonance is then simply a record of what is moving. Friendship, looking, recollection, do not, at least here and now, describe hidden layers surfaced but rather practices of affinity, diagramming what Weaver calls “lines across time.” With my back turned to you, I am watching footage of Benning speaking to students at the Hammer Museum. He shows excerpts of his 1997 film, Four Corners, and a Google Maps view of the Sierra Nevada mountains where the two cabins of Two Cabins were built. He talks about the hundred paintings he made after Traylor. Then he gets to Thoreau, and the rediscovery of Walden that so resonated, spurred him to work. He reads the passage again, and I’ll place it here so we can read it together, which is what Thoreau describes: where the work ends and the world, which is to say the work, begins again.
But while we are confined to books… we are in danger of forgetting the language which all things and events speak without metaphor, which alone is copious and standard. Much is published, but little printed. The rays which stream through the shutter will be no longer remembered when the shutter is wholly removed. No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.