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Jan 12 / Simon

ARTIST PROFILE 4 Claire Benn

ABSENCE OF EVIDENCE by Simon Tait 5 Oct 2018

“You have to look, that’s the first thing,” said David Hockney. “It doesn’t matter how long for, a few moments or for hours, but if you don’t do it properly you’ll miss what you need”. And what you need is sometimes very subtly hidden.

He was talking recently to a group of art critics who had just presented him with the 2018 Critics’ Circle Award for a lifetime’s achievement, but it could have been Claire Benn talking to her students. She can look for days at a subject before she has what she needs.

Hockney is especially noted for his use of modern technology to help him see what he needs – his next exhibition will be based on his experiments with 3D imaging – but technology, he says, is just the tool you need for a particular job. “A paint brush is technology,” he said. Or sometimes, in Claire’s case, a needle.

Claire Benn’s art defies classification, something Hockney would heartily approve of. It is sewing at its most basic, but it also painting, it is using the character of different fabrics. She seldom if ever knows what will be the end result of a piece of work, but her art has a mystical sense, often of a kind of tranquil desolation that is always absorbing. She looks to wilderness for her inspiration, the white wastes of the Arctic and the infinite bleakness of New Mexico’s Atacama Desert.

Her chosen media are mostly textiles, thread, raw earth pigments, natural dyes, acrylic paint and thread. She loves to work with antique hempen sheets, some of them a century old, especially those with patches because of the personality they can bring to the piece (she has a source in Gloucestershire). The work therefore is abstract but complex in ideas and practice; reductive and begging touch as well as gaze. There are echoes of the etherial print works of Rebecca Salter, perhaps, or the devastation of Anselm Kieffer, but these pieces – one cannot even label them “canvases” though some hang as if they are – are uniquely invented, arriving via deep contemplation.

Claire has had no formal training for what she does – there is no training for what she does because no-one else does it. She grew up in Southampton raised by her grandmother at whose knee she learned hand-stitching – “Her stitching was nothing spectacular, but she did it all the time” – and it was a skill that never left her. She also drew and painted as a child, but at 20, having ducked out of further education – her report declared that she “has a negative attitude towards institutional discipline”- began an extremely successful career in telephone sales and then training.

After ten years rising through the ranks of Thomson, publishers of Yellow Pages, she diversified into making training videos. “What became very apparent to me was that people would buy a four hour training video but had no idea what to do with it” she recalls. “I had the skill to know that from four hour video you could get a five day programme”.

One of her bosses was the publisher James Benn; they married, and she went professionally freelance setting up her own consultancy while he pursued a career in independent publishing. There children grown and away, they now live in a 1630s converted barn in Surrey which is also her studio.

It was in the mid-90s in Canada that she rediscovered her love of textiles when she saw a collection of antique Mennonite quilts. “I was struck by the combination of form and function, something made to keep you warm but which you could just as easily hang on the wall it was so beautiful”. She bought a second-hand sewing machine, made her first quilt, did some classes, but didn’t take to traditional technique.

Then James treated her to a trip to the needlework mecca Paducah, Kentucky, and the biggest annual quilting exhibition in the States where she saw hand-dyed fabric for the first time. She signed up at a dyeing school run by Lesley Morgan near to where she now lives and works, and learned how to turn dyes into paint using natural tinctures, how to make a paste with sodium alginate, a seaweed product, dissolved with dye, and a new creative world opened up before her. Quilting was left behind, and with Lesley she started Committed to Cloth in 2001 which teaches working with textiles and encourages students to develop their creative ideas. Claire stood down three years ago, but still teaches for the company.

Then in about 2012 she rediscovered her love of hand-stitching, through the holistic healing system ayurveda, “a kind of science of life”, to which Claire and her husband are adherents (they also practice yoga and meditation). James had been advised to spend a month of quiet introspection at a retreat near Mumbai, and Claire went with him. “We knew that once there we were on a controlled diet – no alcohol, no caffeine, no tobacco – and even reading was discouraged, so I asked if I could hand-stitch. No problem”. She tacked together two pieces of grey linen a metre and a half square and with a roll of neutral-coloured hemp thread spent five to six hours a day for 28 days stitching. “I just fell back in love with the process, the slowness, the meditative quality, on the table or on my lap, and I don’t what I think about. I’m just in a floating mind kind of place”.

She had also discovered the work of Agnes Martin, the American painter known for her reductive process that pares down her images to find a kind of transcendental state, with an emphasis, if there is any emphasis, on line and subtle colour. “I watched videos of her working, read her writings, and became really tough trying to make my work simpler – I was quite frightened by what I was trying to do”. She will often reverse a process on a piece, undoing the labour of weeks, so that some of her works can take months to complete.

She thinks of the aphorism “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” in reference to her work, how colour seems to insinuate itself through the underpainting, contriving her pieces through stitch, pigment, fabric, to bring the viewer’s imagination to full bore as they contemplate the ensemble and see what may or may not be there. She looks at a large mostly white and black piece with tiny red stitching barely visible on which she has been working: “Definitely an absence of evidence there” she murmurs with satisfaction.

To find her subject matter she seeks out wasteland, in Scotland at first and then in Africa, New Zealand – she loves the Otago Grassland there – Canada, the Middle East. Each year she and James go on what they call their “desolation trips”, and one was to the Arctic Circle on Norway’s Russian border where the grandeur of the Northern Lights was, for Claire, dwarfed by the splendour of the tundra landscape under a full moon, “the most astonishing thing”.

If she could choose her favourite place, though, it would be New Mexico and the Atacama Desert where she and James were last year. “It is magical, and I want to work with the dirt, white dirt, red dirt, to make my pigments and maybe bind them with acrylics – I like acrylic because it gives a literal feel to the surface”.

Claire teaches in the UK, the United States, Germany and Italy, though not in formal education because she has no qualification. Almost all her pupils are female and middle-aged, and because of her free style they frequently point her to a new twist in technique for a particular effect.

“The joy and beauty of what I do is that there is always something new to find if you look the right way,” she says, “and nothing is ruled out”.