Fort Myers artist Veronica Benning focuses perception

'Veronica Alstro 15: Small Abstraction,' Veronica Benning (2011) oil pastel on acid-free paper. 5 by 4   inches.

"Veronica Alstro 15: Small Abstraction," Veronica Benning (2011) oil pastel on acid-free paper. 5 by 4 inches.

Veronica Benning's work, even when it is a simple subject such as these flowers, is deliberate in its luxurious use of color.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL

Veronica Benning's work, even when it is a simple subject such as these flowers, is deliberate in its luxurious use of color.

'Split-Leaf Philodendron with Oranges on White No. 2,' by Veronica Benning, 2011. Oil on canvas. 16   by 20 inches.

"Split-Leaf Philodendron with Oranges on White No. 2," by Veronica Benning, 2011. Oil on canvas. 16 by 20 inches.

Veronica Benning's work, even when it is a simple subject such as these heliconias, is deliberate in its luxurious use of color.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL

Veronica Benning's work, even when it is a simple subject such as these heliconias, is deliberate in its luxurious use of color.

Still-life with artist:

Veronica Benning focuses on the act of perception

For Veronica Benning, the act of painting is a "trial-and-error process."

A former professor of art in Maine, she has spent a lifetime learning how to see and record her perceptions. Now retired and living in Fort Myers, she gives the impression of being a perpetual student or seeker. She's constantly striving to create a well-tempered painting, looking for the sweet spot where the rendering of an image becomes compelling, magical, unforgettable.The working process she describes sounds like a dialogue between the artist and the object.

"But there's a fine point about the dialogue," she notes. "You try not to let what you've already done in the painting dictate to you. You're letting nature or the world tell you. You look at the world in terms of painting. Don't look at painting in terms of the world."

Benning's oil paintings and works on paper are vividly colored, sophisticated and expressive. They may be abstract or representational. Her subject matter is the traditional art-school triumvirate of landscape, still-life and the human figure. Her real subject, the attainment of beauty, is similarly time-tested.

"Painting is color, two-dimensional color relationships," she muses while pouring over a group of pastel still-lifes she's done in the past few months, several of which are fairly bursting with luscious hues. "It's amazing how little you need if you get the right colors in the right relationships."

A recent visit to Benning's home, where she has set up a studio on her lanai, reveals a small museum's worth of art packed inside a modest dwelling. Paintings are stacked 20 deep in the dining area. They blanket the walls in every room. Pastels are neatly piled on the living-room carpet for us to leaf through. Several small figurative ink drawings and tiny abstract oil paintings are arranged on a folding screen in the studio.

In her study, she has a wall devoted to the work of her mentors and friends.

Scattered throughout her paintings are echoes of the artists she loves. Some large canvases with mythological figures recall Matisse's thickly outlined dancers from the early years of the 20th century. A still-life painting on her easel, a gorgeous rendering of a philodendron stalk next to a bowl of oranges, has a patchy quality that brings to mind Cezanne's use of the palette knife to break forms into small planes of color that in turn coalesce into a shimmering whole. Her abstractions often have an urgent, planar quality reminiscent of the work of Nicolas de Stael.

Beyond the historical references, though, the act of perception is central to her art. Don't look to this artist for political commentary, harangues about social squalor or stories of childhood trauma. Her artwork is almost purely about the translation of visual experience into a two-dimensional format and it betrays little in the way of personal history.

However, a viewer might discern mood swings, ranging from joyous, light-struck moments to emotional flat-lining, in her landscapes. And in a recent series of abstract pastels on paper, she has begun communing with her hip, relating to a part of her body that was affected by a hip-replacement surgery this summer. These spare, linear compositions evoke feelings of movement in space. Some suggest the human torso or express the shape of a hip socket.

"I like the color and the simplicity of these," noted Benning, crouched on the floor of her living room, with several examples of the "Hip" series spread out around her. "In terms of the composition, I like the sense that something could be so simplified and a part related to the whole shape, the unified effect."

Shape of a career

Born in Clearwater in 1947, Benning was raised mostly in Greenwich, Conn. In high school, she was involved in dance, drama, and choral clubs as well as the visual arts. She attended Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, for two years. Dissatisfied with the curriculum, she transferred to Washington University in St. Louis, where she studied art from 1967 to 1971.

There she met her future husband, William C. Collins, one of her teachers. She and Collins traveled widely during their marriage, with art always high on the itinerary.

"It was a fantastic time for me to learn," Benning remembers. "We traveled all over Europe. We went to Aix [Aix-en-Provence, the home of post-Impressionist artist Paul Cezanne] and spent a summer in France. We went to every single motif Cezanne painted around Aix. We went to many museums in Europe."

She became a faculty member of the Portland School of Art faculty, where Collins also taught. Though her marriage ended in divorce during the early 1980s – and Collins eventually took a position at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro – she remained in Portland, teaching painting, figure drawing, and two-dimension design to generations of students. In 1993, she moved to Florida to be closer to her parents.

Benning's teaching career left an indelible imprint on her.

"Maine, with its beauty and history of artists ... and the experience of working with faculty and students, has shaped my approach," she has written. "I consider painting to be a study and a vital, absorbing, ever-changing and fascinating exploration."

Feeling fundamentals

Years of introducing students to the primary building blocks of art can be felt in Benning's paintings and works on paper.

"Through teaching, I was reteaching myself to paint. The students' rewards were my own, too," she says. "The philosophy of the school had to do with a holistic approach to art, whereby the unity of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

"I could see the students understanding it and getting it and being extremely excited and enthused about it. They would learn the basics right from the start. Seeing their enthusiasm and excitement about learning to see," was gratifying, Benning explained. "Drawing is seeing, and perception is so exciting."

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